At last, a cooking show that’s actually about reality
Produced by FX’s streaming service and available on Hulu, “The Bear” tells the story of Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) and his kitchen crew as he somewhat reluctantly takes over the family-owned Italian beef spot willed to him by his brother Mike (Jon Bernthal), who recently committed suicide. The specter of loss and the unanswerable questions about why he did it hover over the show. It’s a feeling that will be familiar to anyone who’s lost a loved one to suicide, the unfathomable survivor’s guilt that permeates your every thought.
Carmy attempts to internalize his grief by throwing himself into his work. Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) does it with swaggering brio, like he’s playing a tough-talking cartoon version of himself. By the end of the show’s compact eight-episode run, we learn more about the others in the kitchen and how they’re handling it. If this sounds like a very depressing show, I should note that “The Bear” is often very funny, too, as these people bicker and fight and eventually find solace: in Al-Anon, in expanding their culinary horizons, in each other.
Eventually we learn that Carmy was a fine dining chef of some repute: winning James Beard Awards, working at Noma in Copenhagen. It’s unclear why his brother kept him out of the family business all these years, but the show heavily implies that Mike wanted Carmy to go train for real, to become the celebrated chef that he’d never become slicing steak in a filthy Chicago kitchen.
But there’s another thing happening here: “The Bear” is very aware of the post-Bourdain “chef as rock star” archetype and does its best to disabuse the viewer of any notion that this is just regular old bad behavior. These are broken people struggling with trauma. Therapy doesn’t work. A story about running into Bill Murray at a bar at 6:45 am seems pathetic to people who aren’t the type to be hanging out in bars at 6:45 am.
There’s no glory in applying the French brigade system to a crummy sandwich shop. It might make the kitchen run more efficiently, but it introduces unbearable levels of stress and needless hierarchy. “The Bear” reminds us that the Gordon Ramsays of this world only seem like swaggering alpha males through the lens of television. In many respects “The Bear” itself is like a nightmarish mirror image of kitchen reality shows. A dream sequence even puts Carmy in the middle of a corny stand-and-stir cooking show at one point, as if to highlight the differences between the artificial veneer of cooking shows and the grim reality of his real restaurant.
At its peak, “The Bear” recalls the Safdies’ best work, both feral and naturalistic. A particularly stunning episode: the seventh, which largely consists of a single handheld shot, whirling and juking around the cramped kitchen until the tension becomes too much to, uh, bear. Any veteran of a down-at-its-heels restaurant will recognize the feeling of the whole thing unraveling, literally and physically.
By the end, the ominous promise of violence that slowly twists its way through the season finally pays off in a stabbing. The staff angrily turn on one another. The overall effect is disorienting and clamorous, a broken machine spinning out of control. Pounding music, the clanging of old video game cabinets, and a ticket printer that seemingly won’t turn off, provide the clamorous soundtrack. For all the deserved hype about this episode’s artful direction, it’s the sound design that’s truly claustrophobic.
If there’s a knock, it’s that sometimes this can feel too much like stagecraft–certain plot devices, including one particularly tedious deus ex machina, seem to exist only to move the story along. Some scenes play a little too intense, in the manner of black-box community theater. But no matter. With its grimly accurate sense of place, “The Bear” is one of the best new shows in ages, both a love letter to and a scathing indictment of the restaurant industry and the people who cook for us.