Early on in two new fish-out-of-water shows, there are parallel scenes in which a main character, newly arrived in Brooklyn with little professional experience but a lot of hope, interviews for a job at a restaurant. In “The Last O.G.,” a comedy on TBS, our job-seeker is Tray (Tracy Morgan), a former drug dealer who has returned to his newly gentrified neighborhood after 15 years in prison, looking to change his life and put to use the culinary skills he learned while locked up. In Starz’s drama “Sweetbitter,” based on the 2016 bestseller by Stephanie Danler, it’s 20-something Tess (Ella Purnell), who has escaped a dreary life in small-town Ohio for the romance of the big city.
“I would like to become head chef,” an overly optimistic Tray says to a snooty manager, forcing him to taste his prison-famous “dessert loaf,” a candy bar made of other crushed-up candy bars. When he’s rejected, he inquires about other jobs, each one lower in the kitchen hierarchy: line cook, server, janitor.
Tess, meanwhile, has flitted into a restaurant modeled after Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe — the kind of place Tray can only dream of working — and it’s clear she’s after an easy gig as a server to keep her afloat financially until she figures out what she wants to do with her life. “So, tell me what you know about wine?” asks another snooty manager. “For instance, you could tell me the five noble grapes of Bordeaux?” She’s stumped by that and most of his other questions, too.
Guess which one gets a job?
“Sweetbitter” follows Tess as she learns the ropes in the high-stakes world of fine-dining, and falls in and out of lust with her new colleagues and their drugs — sort of “The Devil Wears Prada” meets “Kitchen Confidential.” As for Tray, he is rejected from restaurant after restaurant due to his criminal record, until a chance encounter lands him a job in another rarefied culinary scene: that of pretentious designer coffee.
You could picture both shows existing in the same timeline — one from the perspective of the gentrified, the other from the gentrifier. When Tray sees that his neighborhood has been invaded by white people eating brunch, he shouts “The f--- happened to Brooklyn?” When Tess drives to her new Brooklyn apartment — the show is set in 2006 — she pops into a dive bar to pick up her keys. “There goes the neighborhood,” says a white, tattooed woman at the bar, looking her up and down. The neighborhood, of course, was already gone.
“The Last O.G.” was written by Jordan Peele, who won a screenwriting Oscar for “Get Out,” and its first episode was directed by Jorma Taccone, part of the Lonely Island comedy trio.
The show continues some of the themes of “Get Out,” said Taccone, giving viewers “the ability to look at the black experience from a black perspective — of how it might feel to be surrounded by white people and how scary that can be for people, of feeling like your neighborhood doesn’t feel like your neighborhood any more.”
“Get Out” was funny, too — the thriller was nominated for a Golden Globe in the comedy category — but “The Last O.G.” is even more comedic.
“There’s an endless amount of humor to be had in white people’s love of selling each other overpriced drinks and food,” said Taccone, who would know: He lives in Carroll Gardens, where the show is set. “My happiest moment of shooting the pilot was having Tracy be able to yell, ‘What the f--- happened to Brooklyn?’ in front of the coffee shop I go to.” (Smith Canteen, for the record.)
Has the restaurant industry gotten out of hand? Yes, both shows seem to say, but in different ways.
“The Last O.G.” flashes back to Tray’s arrest, when he is betrayed in a sting operation by his former friend and fellow dealer, Wavy. When he returns, he finds that Wavy owns a franchise of a third-wave coffee shop called Grundles (look it up on Urban Dictionary, if you must), a sort of Blue Bottle-meets-Starbucks spoof. It’s the kind of place where coffees are $5, the orders are always complicated, and a person who orders a medium is corrected: It’s a “regularé.”
“Coffee is my new hustle,” says Wavy, who rewards Tray with a barista job for not snitching. “This coffee game is more lucrative than slinging ever was.”
But in “Sweetbitter,” it’s the excesses of the staff — bottomless shift drinks followed by late nights at industry bars, where they’ll put any pills in their mouths and powders up their noses — that drive the show’s drama. For Tess, who is newly inducted in this world, food is sex and sex is nourishment.
“It’s a sensory awakening that she really goes through,” said Purnell. “I think passion in a physical way goes hand in hand with taste and smell.”
After the past few months of industry scandals, which saw top chefs including Mario Batali and John Besh disgraced for sexual harassment, a show that focuses on sexual exploits in a restaurant lands in an uncomfortable place.
“ ‘Sweetbitter’ is a period piece,” said Danler. “I think that 2006 was the tipping point where the restaurants couldn’t operate like the Wild West anymore. They had to grow up and bring in a human resources department and be accountable because they really stopped being a subculture. . . . That sort of change takes a long time, and so we’re still in it.”
Other unsavory aspects of the job are represented, too: “We wanted to show the difficulty of it, the loneliness of it, the ugliness of it,” said Danler. Tess scrubs dishes and wears unflattering clogs. She burns herself and drops plates and gets yelled at by cooks. And substance abuse — which the hospitality industry suffers from at a higher rate than other fields — is very present in the show.
It’s a TV trope — even in “The Last O.G.” — that service industry work is a last resort. But the characters in “Sweetbitter” are career servers and bartenders who are proud of their profession and extremely knowledgeable about oysters and wine. They’re well-rounded, too, and mostly realistic — the staff hookups, the literature-quoting tattooed bartenders, the mix of high and low. One minute, Tess is learning about dry Riesling, the next she’s helping an undocumented colleague cash his paycheck. That contrast was true to Danler’s experience, from “the guests that are spending $1,500 on a bottle of champagne to the boys in the kitchen who are working here illegally and making minimum wage,” she said. “The full socioeconomic spectrum is on display every single night in a restaurant.”
In both shows, the food needed to be realistic.
Danler sent the actors cast as cooks to boot camp at the Institute for Culinary Education, and actors playing servers trained with one of Danler’s former colleagues from Union Square Cafe.
“The three-plate carry. I mean, that got me. That is hard, very hard,” said Purnell, whose only restaurant experience was a short stint in a London pub. She admitted to a lot of broken plates, among other items: When she was learning how to properly open a bottle of wine, “We went from like, 30 pretty good-quality wine keys to like, 30 broken, wonky wine keys.”
There were good days, too. Tom Sturridge, who plays the hunky, surly bartender Jake, had to learn how to shuck an oyster. “We had hundreds — literally hundreds — of oysters while he was practicing,” said Danler. When the kitchen actors finished their training. “We did a big tasting where they prepared all of the dishes from our menu, and it was like a tuna tartare, and tagliatelle with ragout, and steak, and chicken liver mousse.”
Because when food plays a critical role in a show, it has to be just right. That’s what Taccone learned when he was directing the very first scene of “The Last O.G.,” in which Tray is making dinner for his girlfriend Shay, played by Tiffany Haddish, before his arrest. They were filming at the Gowanus Houses, a public-housing project.
“I was trying to avoid some cliches, or what in my mind were cliches,” said Taccone, who had the character prepare “a French, plated version of a meal that he might make with the materials he had at the time, but using things he would get at the bodega.” Haddish, he said, was coming into the scene completely blind.
“Our first take, Tracy put the food down in front of her, and her reaction was, ‘What . . . is this?’” His character wouldn’t cook like that, she explained to Taccone.
They needed a new plan — and new props. Haddish told him what to do, said Taccone. “We ran across the street” — to some carryout window, only blocks away from an upscale tasting-menu restaurant Taccone frequents — “and bought some delicious fried chicken.”