There's more than a touch of Alice in Wonderland about this six-part series set in a high-end restaurant in Manhattan.

It's a curious business, waiting. The very name suggests a transitory state, something we do in the time between the thing we were doing and the thing we will be doing. Waiting.

But for plenty of people in hospitality, waiting is much more than that. It's a profession, and the really good ones are REALLY good at it. They make it look easy, though it's not.

The most memorable moment of my failed-waiter student days came the night I spilled a bowl of soup down a customer's back. Unsurprisingly, that was the last time I did table service in the place; surprisingly, they kept me on, moving me to the bar, where I could do damage of a far more acceptable kind.

Sweetbitter (Stan, Sundays) has a foot on either side of the waiting line. It's the story of Tess (Ella Purnell), a 22-year-old who moves to Manhattan in 2006 and scores a job in a high-end restaurant as a back waiter, a kind of waiter-in-waiting.

English actress Ella Purnell stars as Tess in the six-part series SweetBitter on Stan.

Photo: Macall Polay


Tess doesn't know much about wine, or about fine-dining, but restaurant manager Howard (Paul Sparks) sees something in her. Maybe it's her bravery in moving to the city alone, or the fact she has noticed his impeccable manicure, but probably it's because she has eyes the size of dinner plates and an obvious appetite for experience to match. Whatever, he gives her a chance to prove she can cut it in the big leagues, and so begins Tess' journey down the rabbit hole.

And there really is an Alice in Wonderland vibe to Sweetbitter, which was adapted by Stephanie Danler​ from her own novel-cum-memoir. Tess is the wide-eyed innocent who wakes in a strange place to find herself quizzed by the Cheshire Cat-like Howard, confounded by the Mad Hatter-like Russian waiter Sasha (Daniyar​), and both feted and baited by the Queen of Hearts-like Simone (Caitlin Fitzgerald, the bachelorette Serena in the most recent season of UnREAL), who appears to know everything about wine and nothing about happiness.

And of course there are the mind-altering substances – plenty of stuff labelled "drink me" and "eat me": oysters, champagne, speed, amyl nitrate, coke. Lots of coke.

So far so Kitchen Confidential, you might say. But the fresh ingredient Sweetbitter brings to the table is a sharp eye for class and hierarchy within the high-end restaurant business. And that stuff is fascinating.

It's not all long hours and bad pay, as Tess gets to sample some of the finer things in life too.

The restaurant is both a mirror of the social stratifications of the big city and a world unto itself. There are written guidelines, for instance, about who can sleep with whom. Salaried staff can't schtup the casuals, but so long as you "stick to your level" all bets are off.

In working hours, the restaurant is a well-oiled machine, every glass polished to a gleam, every napkin folded just so. But after hours, the place becomes the launch pad for a bacchanal that runs into the small hours, nightly. Staff drinks beget staff drugs beget staff hook-ups beget staff regrets. Round and round and round it goes.

This six-part series comes in half-hourly increments, which is both a strength and a weakness. That length is more commonly the domain of comedy, but while there are occasional laughs Sweetbitter is really a drama. But it's a drama of very small things – this season is drawn from just the first 30 pages of Danler's book – a rite-of-passage tale in which a young woman is inculcated into a strange world that she will inevitably leave. Because Tess is that kind of waiter.

As we know, good things – like New York Times bestsellers – eventually come to those who wait. The interest, then, lies in seeing how much breakage will be incurred along the way.

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Karl Quinn

Karl has been a journalist at Fairfax Media since 1999, in a variety of writing and editing roles. Karl writes about popular culture with a particular focus on film and television.

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