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'From Scratch' has Zoe Saldaña in a Netflix story that would fit in on Hallmark

Nina Metz
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

After the death of her husband from cancer, actor Tembi Locke wrote a 2019 memoir about the experience called “From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home.” In her first few years as a widow, she and her young daughter spent their summers in the small town of her husband’s native Sicily, forging an unexpected bond with her mother-in-law and the place itself.

The eight-part Netflix drama “From Scratch,” starring Zoe Saldaña, is a lightly fictionalized adaptation of that story, beginning when Amy (Saldaña in the role based on Locke) enrolls in an art program in Florence, Italy, where she meets and falls in love with a chef named Lino (Eugenio Mastrandrea).

Two years later, they’re living together and making a go of it in Los Angeles — she’s working at an art gallery, he’s waiting tables and dreaming of opening his own restaurant. Slowly, things finally look to be coming together for Lino professionally. And then he’s diagnosed with a rare cancer that throws all their plans and shared dreams into disarray.

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In Locke’s memoir, much of this transpires early in the book, with the bulk of it focused on her time in Sicily after his death. The show is co-created by Locke (whose acting credits include the Syfy series “Eureka” and Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever”; she’s behind the camera this time) along with her sister Attica Locke, and they’ve altered that pacing so that the first half of the season is focused on Amy and Lino’s time together as a couple.

You can understand the impulse. For viewers to feel Lino’s loss, we first need to know him and care about him. But as written, Amy and Lino are very sweet, very earnest people and also very underwhelming as a couple.

The first four episodes are focused on the stuff of life and I typically like that sort of thing. Stories don’t need a nemesis or the threat of an affair for there to be human drama! Give me the texture of someone’s day-to-day world. Relationships can be wonderful and complicated in equal measure and capturing why two people are drawn together — and also how they fight — can feel deeply intimate and revealing.

But that’s not what “From Scratch” is really getting at, landing too close for my taste to something you might describe as elevated Hallmark, as if it were studiously avoiding anything too revealing about the actual people it’s loosely based on. It’s up to everyone else on screen to inject some needed energy that is so clearly missing from our central pair.

In "From Scratch," Zoe Saldana stars in a lightly fictionalized adaptation of Tembi Locke's memoir about the experience of falling in love with her husband, losing him to cancer and connecting with his Sicilian roots.

Keith David plays Amy’s father and there’s not much to the role, but everything pops whenever he is on screen because he’s the kind of actor who shows up and you think: OK, now we’re cooking with gas. The same goes for the excellent Danielle Deadwyler (who currently stars in “Till”) as Amy’s sister Zora, who is sardonic and far less self-involved than her sibling and frankly a more interesting character.

Paride Benassai is also especially good as Lino’s stubborn father, who holds a grudge against his son for not remaining in Sicily to take over the family farm.

The show feels very careful about so much — too careful — but every so often there’s a line of dialogue that hints at a sense of humor. “So you’re the brown girl,” a gallery owner says to Amy during a job interview. Excuse me, she replies? “You went to Brown?”

Or when Lino decides to cook a menu of Italian food for Thanksgiving, to which Zora notes her and Amy’s Houston roots and offers a deadpan “oh, good” — knowing full well that anything but traditional holiday cuisine will be ignored and uneaten by their parents.

The show captures the way families are complicated. And how isolating it can be as an immigrant in an unfamiliar country. It also deviates from the book in one key way: In real life, Locke’s in-laws disapproved because she is Black and American, and only later reconciled with their son when he became ill. In the show, the discord isn’t rooted in racism, but that Lino didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps and remain in Sicily. That’s a very different underlying source of tension and it certainly lets Lino’s family off the hook a bit too easily.

Like so many TV series at the moment, “From Scratch” would work better as a movie. But even so, there is a cumulative power to it. I hate to say it, but Amy becomes a far more compelling character once her husband dies and she finds herself in Sicily, trying to make sense of her life going forward and creating unexpected attachments with her mother-in-law and the place itself. Both are a way to stay connected with her husband in ways that simply did not exist when he was alive.

'FROM SCRATCH'2 stars (out of 4)Rating: TV-MAHow to watch: On Netflix Friday