Spoilers for the Sweetbitter premiere. New York City always seems like a good idea — everyone from Frank Sinatra to Carrie Bradshaw has encouraged the notion that if you can make it there, you can indeed make it anywhere. To an extent, that’s true, but as Tess (Ella Purnell) learns in the series premiere of Sweetbitter, it’s not as easy as you think. One episode in, it’s obvious that Sweetbitter is a love letter to New York City — but it's also a warning against it. You can come, but can you stay?
Tess’ catalyst isn’t sudden in the traditional sense — she just decides to up and leave her hometown because if she didn’t go then, she’d never go at all. There’s no cataclysmic event or change in her life. Tess (who's not named in the premiere) is simply just bored. And so, she takes the days-long drive into the city, contemplating her new life, only to find out that it’s a whopping $7 to go over the bridge. “Seems like a lot to get in,” she tells the toll booth clerk. Of course, as these things go, it will cost her more in the long run, but once Tess gets to her new apartment and on the street, it seems like it’s worth it. That is, until she’s shafted by the guy buying her car and then has to pound the pavement in order to get a job.
Even her interview with restaurant owner Howard (Paul Sparks) is hard. Tess ends up complimenting his nails and the ambience and still somehow gets a job. Sometimes, you just get lucky, and in this case, Tess charms her way into a great job the way a New Yorker will use back alleys to not pay a broker fee on an apartment or claim he or she lives on Long Island in order to not pay New York City car insurance prices. New York, like becoming a part of this restaurant, can mean stretching the truth. Sometimes it works; and sometimes it doesn’t. Tess wins this round, but she’s going to have to make up that learning curve fast, as evidenced by her first trail.
The trope of “pretty white girl moves to the big city” divides pretty neatly into two types of examples: the pre-9/11 days of Sex And The City, when Carrie was able to afford a very nice apartment on the Upper East Side on a columnist’s salary and she spent her time reveling in it, and the post-recession days of Girls, when Hannah couldn’t get a job or a decent apartment or a man who wore a shirt and she spent her time in Brooklyn, complaining about it. So far, Sweetbitter, set in the '00s, seems to fall squarely in the middle, the unnamed restaurant serving as a microcosm for the city at large.
As Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald) tells Tess, everyone was new at one point or another, and the viewer gets the feeling that she doesn’t just mean new to the job. During training, Tess starts to realize that there are a lot of rules at the restaurant that she didn’t even know existed, and the same is true of her newly adopted home. New York City, like anywhere else, has its own codes and adopted, unofficial bylaws. The restaurant, like the city, is not for the faint of heart. It takes work and a certain amount of character, which Tess seems to lack, because, as Simone says, she’s skated by on her charms for way too long.
And in New York, you can’t do that. A good look can certainly get you a table at a new restaurant, but it cannot open every other door for you. As a longtime resident, I’ve learned that if you want to stay in New York City, you have to want to be in New York City. Tess’ restaurant is going to put her through the paces in order to train her properly to work there, and it’s going to take a lot of effort. But it will be worth it, if working there and climbing the ladder is what she wants. The city will do the same — the training period can be brutal, with crowded subways and garbage and that smell of low tide in the summer — but on those perfect spring or fall days, when the cherry blossoms have burst or the leaves have turned a particular shade of crimson, one can’t help but inhale and be thankful at the good fortune to live in New York. It’s always worth it if you want it enough.
At the beginning of the episode, Tess says, “All I had was a vision: a city, lit up, loud, full of people, but when you come from a place without it, you can’t know what it really is until you get there.” In her naïveté, Tess didn’t know what it was until she got there. But by the end of the first episode of Sweebitter, oyster and salt on her tongue, Tess knows she can’t be anywhere else.