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I last lamented TV’s failures to transform audience passion for unscripted shows about food and restaurants into scripted success back in 2018 with the premiere of Starz’s Sweetbitter, an innocuous dud that at least ran two seasons (outlasting entries like AMC’s very bad Feed the Beast and Fox’s fairly good Kitchen Confidential).
No series illustrates the challenge quite so well as FX’s new comedy The Bear, which captures the modern kitchen’s chaotic bedlam and precarious sense of family better than any show I’ve ever seen, while at the same time frequently forcing exactly the question no network wants its programming to raise: Why the heck would I want to spend time here?
The Bear (which will stream on Hulu) is more frequently unbearably tense than it is funny, and by the end of its eight-episode first season, I felt it had turned an appealing tonal corner and found empathy for many of its characters. It’s a series sure to trigger PTSD for anybody with food service experience and paranoia for anybody worried about what’s happening at the back of their favorite greasy spoon. But as for whether or not you’ll want to spend even 30 minutes per week in this maelstrom of grease spatter, unsharpened knives and multilingual abuse, that’s a personal question.
Created by Ramy veteran Christopher Storer, also co-showrunner with Joanna Calo, The Bear focuses on Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White, somehow finding a Chicago-area clan more dysfunctional than the one from Shameless). After a run as chef at some of the best fine dining restaurants in the world, Carmy returns to take control of the family eatery after his brother’s (one of several cameos FX doesn’t want spoiled) shocking suicide. The Original Beef of Chicagoland is a neighborhood institution, but fine dining it is not.
Carmy is determined to make big changes, much to the chagrin of his fuck-up non-biological cousin Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, somehow finding an urban crew more dysfunctional than the one from Girls). Carmy’s mission, which includes a revised menu and hiring Culinary Institute of America-trained Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), is met with skepticism by veteran line-cook Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) and optimism by culinarily curious baker Marcus (Lionel Boyce). As Carmy begins realizing how deep in debt the restaurant is and the compromises his troubled brother was making, and he begins confronting some of his own personal demons, it becomes clear that training this particular bear will be more complicated than he expected.
Since most of The Bear is set in a cramped kitchen — Storer and Calo, who share directing duties, love a good Chicago second unit montage, but only to alleviate the claustrophobia — it’s a boon that the series is spectacularly well-cast.
White has a well-established ability to make screwing up seem incredibly sympathetic and The Bear is structured so that its early episodes are a build-up to an inevitable meltdown. Whether that meltdown will come via drugs and alcohol, street violence or the ticking time bomb that is a poorly maintained kitchen is a source of effective suspense. White is cleverly matched by Moss-Bachrach, the only cast member pushing a Chicago accent, whose own gift is exposing the pathetic underbelly of characters everybody else appears to find lovably irrepressible. Offering a cheery-if-frazzled counterpoint is Abby Elliott as Carmy’s sister Sugar, who hopes that his return will let them grieve together.
There isn’t time in this brief first season for all of the restaurant’s staff members to express full personalities, but Edebiri contributes droll humor and a likable slow-burn, Boyce makes the doughnut-obsessed Marcus into an instantly genial figure and Colón-Zayas delivers on one of the few clear character arcs. The show’s producers want to keep several guest turns a surprise, a pity since I want to praise one or two of those performances, plus once you’ve watched the show you won’t understand the purpose behind the secrecy.
The first season is unrelenting cacophony, and even if I’m skeptical of some of the general details at Original Beef — the hours, menu and overall staffing situation all feel slightly off — there’s a clear authenticity to the space and the way each character navigates the perpetual dangers of poorly sharpened knives, perilous towers of sauces and slippery puddles of indeterminate viscous fluids. It’s a world of unexplained jargon, sporadically subtitled and overlapping languages, arbitrary hierarchies and entrenched rituals. Storer is as enamored of the ugliness and messiness as he is of an appetizing cooking montage.
Though there are familiar restaurant tropes on display, The Bear manages the difficult task of working as an extension of the “You don’t wanna know, but you won’t be able to look away!” genre embodied by Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential — the Fox adaptation, while thoroughly underrated, was too polished — while avoiding so many of its clichés. Illicit substances are present without wallowing. Some corners are cut in food prep without descending into gross-out cautionary tales.
Yet the question remains: Why would you want to spend time here? Whether Carmy knows it or not, he’s trapped in a dark spiral, and waiting for that looming nadir isn’t always pleasant. Folks find Richie to be charming enough to keep around, but many viewers won’t share that Stockholm Syndrome. The undercurrents of grief and addiction are sincere and convincing and, like an unexpected lunchtime rush, too frequently buried in the mayhem.
The season climaxes in well-earned, nearly unwatchable pandemonium, and then in emotional resolutions that are perhaps too tidy. I mostly bought into the intensity and delirium of the journey without always being sure if it was a trip I was enjoying. Others will surely prefer to let the mystery, or the repressed wounds, of the restaurant kitchen remain in cordoned-off commotion.
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