“From Scratch,” premiering Friday on Netflix, is based on Tembi Locke’s 2019 bestseller “From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily and Finding Home,” and yet, watching it, one might guess it had been made specifically to satisfy an algorithm.
That isn’t to dismiss the lived experience of the author, whose particular joys and sorrows many will know themselves. But “From Scratch,” created by Locke with her sister Attica Locke (a writer of fiction whose screen credits include “Empire” and “Little Fires Everywhere,” and who serves as showrunner), is fundamentally an expensive, well-acted, nicely written, very long Lifetime/Hallmark movie, what the Hollywood trades used to call a “weepie.” Without casting too many spoilers in your path, the series checks off with fierce thoroughness a smorgasbord of hot categories: There is food porn, travel porn, love between beautiful humans at (nearly) first sight, weddings, illness, sacrifice, families at odds, the city versus the community, and a heroine whom fate and pluck bring to the life she is meant to live.
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These themes are — I was going to write “packed in,” but at six hours there is plenty of room for everything to rattle around in. The upside is that scenes can play out in an unhurried way — it helps, oddly, that much of it is in Italian — but there is something almost brutal in the up-and-down, back-and-forth of it all, tragedy snatched from the jaws of happiness, happiness from the maw of tragedy, and so on and so forth. The narrative turns somehow feel at once twisty and predictable. Still, this is what some people come for, and they will perhaps feel it as abundance, rather than punishment. (That said, “From Scratch” might be best watched not as a binge, but with some recovery time between episodes.)
Zoe Saldaña plays Amy, standing in for the author, who is having a summer in Florence, studying art and considering never returning to law school. (Tembi Locke’s own creative path is acting, with a long string of credits stretching from the original “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to “Never Have I Have Ever”). Amy meets Lino (Eugenio Mastrandrea), who is already an artist — an artist of food, the best chef in the best restaurant in town. (He’s from Sicily, and, like Amy, has gone against his father’s wishes in following his dreams.) After some picturesque American-girl-abroad folderol and an only slightly rocky road to love — Amy has to divest herself of another Italian boyfriend you are never asked to take seriously — they will get it together to get together and move to Los Angeles. All I could think is, “Why didn’t you just stay in Florence?” But happily, the show is not done with Italy yet.
In L.A., they move in with Amy’s sister Zora (Danielle Deadwyler); Lino finds grunt work in a mediocre restaurant, Amy in an art gallery, which reminds her that she is not making art herself — though, notwithstanding her protests, she seems to have little actual passion for it. Then again, she has her hands full with the various complications that life and the series throw in her way, and many with unfulfilled ambitions of their own will surely find this relatable.
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As the action moves back and forth across the Atlantic, we will also get to know Amy’s divorced parents (Keith David, who it is a pleasure to see at such length, and Kellita Smith) and stepmother (Judith Scott), along with Lino’s father (Paride Benassai), mother (Lucia Sardo) and sister (Roberta Rigano), who have business of their own to work out, as well as complicating the lives of our lovebirds.
Set around the turn of this century, “From Scratch” has the luxury of its pre-dystopian setting, before cellphones and texting — the handmaiden of sex but the enemy of romance. Characters call one another on telephones, take pictures with cameras. Directed largely by Nzingha Stewart (who has made actual Lifetime movies), the series has a luscious, magazine-spread look, especially when it comes to food. There are also some nice up-close views of Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, currently fenced off to the public, where Amy goes to work teaching art to kids. But lest you think she has found her calling there and all will heretofore be well, think again. Still, I believe I breach no confidence to say that the series intends toward a not unhappy ending. After all we’ve been put through, it’d have to.
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Robert Lloyd has been a Los Angeles Times television critic since 2003.
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