Okay. You hear the pitch for The Bear and you’re kinda like, meh. Okay, so there’s this dude. He’s a chef. But not just any chef. He works at the world’s best restaurants. Well, no, he doesn’t like own or run the world’s best restaurants. He’s mostly a faceless, nameless Chef de Cuisine, but if you were like on the James Beard Foundation committee, you’d probably know his name. Or if you were another chef in that world of haute cuisine, you’d probably have heard of him. Well, anyway, he leaves his prestigious chef job to move home to Chicago to take over his family’s beef sandwich restaurant. Nope, that’s it. Fancy chef leaves fancy job to take a less-fancy job cooking beef sandwiches in Chicago for blue-collar types. That’s it.
Not exactly high-concept. Not exactly compelling. On the surface. It’s not as if a Gordon Ramsay type moved back to his tiny Scottish hometown to run the family’s chip shop. So, yes, his family knows his sacrifice, and some various folks from the old neighborhood, but otherwise he’s just some tattooed hipster who honestly looks more at home in a rundown storefront than he does in a fine-dining Michelin-starred place in Napa or New York City. Putting aside the rather simplistic and relatively underwhelming premise, you see that you’re getting Jeremy Allen White as the lead, Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, and Ebon Moss-Bachrach as one of the main supporting characters. And for anyone who has ever watched a season (or eleven) of Shameless, you know it’s going to be an intense, wet-eyed ride with Allen White. And a frantic, equally intense time with Moss-Bachrach that he showed in his turn on Girls. Turns out a beef joint can hold a pretty compelling family drama in its walls, even if the framework is pretty basic.
If you have nerves that fray easily, this is not the show for you. The creators of the show manage to make the work in this small kitchen feel like a cross between your most breathless episode of ER and an artful plate spinning act from your childhood circus. It’s chaotic and beautiful and really, really concerning for all involved. And, sure, nobody is likely to die on the table, but there is always scalding and cutting and various kitchen catastrophes that could befall our characters. But it’s really not the physical peril that puts us on edge. No, it’s not that that gets our heart pumping. It’s the fear that beef isn’t going to cook in time for the opening rush. Or the potatoes won’t boil in time. Or the regulars won’t like a small change to the recipe they’re used to. I’ve never worked in this type of kitchen, but the series really gives us a sense of how it goes. And that shit is stressssful. Which you’d think I’d know after watching a million seasons of Top Chef and its lame sort-of knock-off MasterChef. But this is the unreality reality.
Ultimately it’s not the plot or any type of mystery that drives The Bear. They don’t really layer on a whole lot on top of that original pitch. The restaurant suffers from years of mismanagement, which can be a pretty typical issue that any restaurant could face. And, like any family business, there are a lot of feelings about the family part and whole lot of feelings about the business part. Formerly run by his charismatic, but fucked-up older brother, Michael (Jon Bernthal), Carmy must come in and clean up the finances and operations of The Original Beef of Chicagoland after Mikey’s untimely death. A joint run like the rundown, old shop that it is, rather than the well-oiled three-star machines from which he’s coming. Which, in essence, makes Carmy a fish out of water, despite theoretically growing up in said restaurant. Which, we find out subsequently, he really didn’t. Because Mikey wouldn’t let him, for some unknown reason that he must struggle to understand. And is at the heart of the drama of Carmy coming to terms with his brother’s addictions and mental instability, the legacy of being a Berzatto and trying to keep that legacy afloat while also carving his own path.
Alright. What this all comes down to is the feel and the quality of the writing and acting. The feel is obviously a thing you will either like or won’t. The Bear employs a balance of levity and drama in a very unique way. It’s hard to explain, but the tone is one unlike a lot of shows I’ve seen. That feel is organic and tense, but broken up by moments of usually ironic comedy. There are no “bad” guys on the show. Everyone is just trying to live their lives and hopefully make things a little better for themselves and their workplace and their city. They employ Oliver Platt as a potential big bad, but even he is a way more reasonable version than we usually see. Ultimately, the most interesting character could arguably be the young chef that Carmy brings in to shape up the staff and help him turn things around, Sydney Adamu (Ayo Edebiri). An accomplished chef in her own right, she takes a gig at “The Beef,” over the almost objection of a skeptical Carmy. Why would she do this when she could be working in a fancy kitchen somewhere else? I won’t spoil it (not that it’s a big mystery or anything), but the unraveling of her situation is a great bit of writing, and she really holds her own against a very strong showing from Allen White. A subtle and effective foil of sorts.
This is all to say that the season of The Bear manages to make for good, dramatic television. There are a few goofy things — including a kids’ party out in the ‘burbs that goes a bit sideways — that I could have done without, and would have loved some more Mikey flashbacks because Bernthal is great, but the show does a great job of dropping us into this world and really yanking us around at a pretty hectic pace. The characters all feel real and well-developed and the acting is top-notch. It would certainly not make me want to ever work in a restaurant. Ever. It seems absolutely awful. But, I’m very excited to see where they bring it in season two. I hope and assume it’s not going to be another season of Carmy breathlessly trying to keep everything from flying apart while smoking cigarettes and shooting water from his eye sockets. Honestly, I don’t think the actor could take another group of episodes of his skin blotching that badly over and over again. It almost looks painful. Whatever the case, I have a feeling this thing will definitely win some awards, will gather a very solid audience in streaming and head into season two with some really high expectations.