Sweetbitter’s Paul Sparks: I’m obsessed with survival TV

Published May 8, 2018

IMAGE COURTESY OF STARZ

Obsession is a series in which someone we can’t get enough of opines on something they can’t get enough of.

Paul Sparks, who has both stolen president’s wives (House of Cards) and had his wife stolen (Waco), is now in the business of sharp-suited restaurant management in Starz’s new series Sweetbitter. But he doesn’t manage just any restaurant—it’s one of New York City’s finest. Based on the novel of the same name by Stephanie Danler, the show is Vanderpump Rules meets The Devil Wears Prada. Sparks plays Howard, the cool, intensely aloof Lisa Vanderpump character who watches closely as Tess (played by Ella Purnell) makes every effort to get through her paid training and secure a position as a backwaiter. As Howard, Paul Sparks is distant and put together, two things he, himself, is not—at least not when he’s watching his favorite subgenre of reality TV.

PAUL SPARKS: Before I get to the obsession part of this screed, I should tell you I’m a type one diabetic. Though at times a drag, T1D doesn’t exclude me from doing very many things. I mean, I have a career and a family. I go camping. I’ve run a marathon for cripes sake. That said, I wouldn’t survive for very long, stranded on a deserted island. I have a pile of high-tech gadgets and life saving medications that I drag around with me wherever I go. OK, car camping can be complicated. In spite of these facts, or perhaps because of them, I am obsessed with watching people try to survive on television.

I can’t explain it but I love those stories. I devour them in all flavors. Professional survivalists, amateurs, alone or with a partner, with or without camera crews, with or without clothes. The formula is pretty much the same on every show: find water, make shelter, start a fire, find food, don’t get eaten, persevere. Some fail, some crawl to the finish and a small few even thrive but they all seem to suffer immensely at some point. With messy hair and filthy emaciated bodies they confide their innermost secrets to a diary cam, and each time they do, I become more deeply obsessed with their imperfect humanity. The days always seem unreasonably short when you try to survive (there’s so much to be done!), and the night’s are unbearably long and full of bugs, unseen terrors, and torrential rain. Whether they have a partner or not, these humans love, annoy, despise and ultimately love again (in that order) either themselves or their disheveled other. And both the professional and the novice are always genuinely, crushingly, surprised at “how f—ing hard this is!”

Yes, it is TV. (I sense your judgement). I am intimately acquainted with this illusionary medium. I suspect these shows are scripted, possibly story-boarded and certainly edited to elicit maximum consumerist effect. It is hard for me to believe there’s not a medic in a tent with a rifle and a box of granola bars just off camera. I’m not stupid, I know all this. But the weight loss, the horror show of bug bites, the repugnant things they eat and vomit back up, and the honest-to-goodness human suffering displayed is too wonderful for me to pass up. I gobble it up like a starving man.

You may be thinking that I spend my weekends immersed in survivalist training, I don’t. I have no bush skills. I will admit that sometimes I wonder, if I didn’t have an autoimmune disease, would I be able to make it through a survival situation? Maybe not knowing the answer is part of the allure. But, in the end, I think my obsession lies in watching the transformation these people make. They are all changed. They become something new, and perhaps, something better. It’s worth noting that I have never heard one of them say, “Well, that was a total waste of time.” After watching six hours of Naked Castaway on the DiscoveryGo app on my phone, I feel the same way.

SIDE NOTE: I saw two U.S. senators, a republican and a democrat, try and survive together for six days in the Marshall Islands. The circumstances were pretty lightweight and they had more helpful items for their tepid six days than most. But you know what? They suffered. They were definitely hungry and thirsty and they spent a lot of time together making bad political jokes BUT they shouted and gave high fives on the raft they made that took them to the speed boat that carried them home. Ha Ha! What a joke, right?

I noticed on March 1st, 2018, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) proposed a bi-partisan bill to ban bump stocks. Turns out, those two have worked together a number of times since Rival Survival aired in October of 2014. Talk about the ability to transform. How do we get President Trump in the woods by himself with a fire-making kit, a machete, and a mosquito net?

SWEETBITTER AIRS ON STARZ MAY 6, 2018.