Who’s ‘The Bear’ for, really?
Who’s The Bear for, really? Is this a show for foodies, for fans of hardscrabble working-class urban dramas like David Simon’s Treme, for those of us who like our trauma leavened with a dash of insult humor? It’s not really for Chicagoans, as the venerable Chicago Reader has already pointed out. To venture an answer: going by the sixth episode of its second season, I’m going to have to say that in the end, it’s for masochists who want a whole lot of bickering to go with that tantalizing shot of a pastry.
That episode, entirely a flashback to a Christmas gathering, lays bare the show’s many sins. It spares us its window-dressing shots of city landmarks but things get hectic pretty quick, and don’t let up. After the three Berzatto siblings’ quiet conversation outside in the cold open, about their mother’s poor state of mind, you have family friends Neil and Theodore Fak, in matching red-and-green outfits, trying to get Uncle Jimmy to front them the cash to buy an unopened box of baseball cards. It’s an investment opportunity, see? “Stupidest fucking idea I ever heard. Merry Christmas,” he tells them as he walks off. Two schmoes and a schmuck, talking business: it’s about as honest and human an interaction we get to see.
What the show is doing in the episode is just trying to build sympathy for its nominal hero, Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, would-be restaurateur, wounded and sad and good at the food stuff. Of course, then, everything is about the food, the traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes being prepared with much cursing and wine-swigging by his mother, Donna, played by Jamie Lee Curtis in full manic fury. Her daughter, Nat, asks her again and again if she is OK. She plainly is not. Even when offscreen, her voice rises above the blaring Christmas tunes, yelling for or at someone. She has timers scattered around the kitchen, each set for a different dish, and bubbling pots and crowded counters and overfull oven make for a scene of swirling food-porn chaos, with Donna as its instigator. It all adds up to a bad memory waiting to happen.
Nobody much uses the word “hysterical” in its old, misogynistic sense these days, but that’s what Donna’s behavior is. It’s a caricature, just like cousin Richie’s tough-guy South-Sider shtick. The showrunners seem to think that a parade of big-name guest stars will help, but it doesn’t. Bob Odenkirk, as Uncle Lee, at least was born in Berwyn, so he manages the Chicago accent and mannerisms fine. But what’s the point of bringing John Mulaney and Gillian Jacobs into this mess? Jacobs’ character comes off as so likeable and well-meaning, it’s impossible to buy that she’d ever marry a jerk like Richie. We get it, he was a better man before she divorced him, even if he never was that great a guy. But the thing is, Ebon Moss-Bachrach can’t even manage to play a convincing jerk, let alone pronounce a convincing vowel shift. Who’s the real jerk here, Mr. Storer?
Through all of this, Jeremy Allen White’s Carmy wanders around with his sad eyes, doing his best to avoid difficult conversations. He’s never been so much a character as a collection of tropes: the erstwhile drunk, the brilliant but thwarted chef, the haunted survivor. He does one thing well: talk really fast, preferably while four or five other people are also talking really fast, in a hot kitchen, everybody expressing facile concern for one another, their hostility not even masked. Their allegiances are tribal, habitual, rootless. At least Storer & Co. make it plain. But it’s an endurance test to watch it.
The Bear did just this sort of fast-talk thing is its first season, in its much-lauded one-shot seventh episode, which had the audacity or witlessness to open with Sufjan Stevens’s tune “Chicago” and two-and-a-half minutes of images of Barack Obama gladhanding, Superdawg, the Sears Tower, the L, etc. (Oh, so that’s where this show is set, thanks for the reminder.) Anyway, it climaxes in a similar way, without the cheap plastic, gravy-spattered timers, but with a similar sense of urgency that the food needs to get done on time, and with even more cursing, the restaurant overrun on account of a halfway decent review in the paper that depended on a dish that’s not even on the menu.
No one is about to defend anybody else from Chef Carmy’s wrath, which scatters from object to object depending on the thinness of an onion slice. Put these two episodes together, and you come to understand what The Bear makes of human relationships: even if we want more from them they’re transactional, always a give and a take to them. No Mother Teresas here.
Dreams ends in disappointment. Holiday meals end in disappointment, if not fork-throwing, brawls, and cars crashing into the house. “I make things beautiful for them. And no one makes things beautiful for me,” Donna pronounces to Carmy, in the one tough talk he can’t avoid. She’s echoing sous-chef Sydney here, who with her off-menu risotto scored The Original Beef its favorable review, but she gives it more self-pity. “I want to cook for people and make them happy,” Sydney says in the first season, which sounds more noble.
Maybe Sydney won’t have the same sort of breakdown as Donna, but in the end she’s just as navel-gazing, walking off the job when things get tough because the boss acts like a dick: doing her best to fuck things up at a critical moment. In the end, both of them are boring. We have the put-upon mom over here, the up-and-coming striver over there, the one manic, the other depressive. The only thing we are sure they know how to do is hurt. Italian beef, pastries, and hurt: that’s all the folks on this show know how to make. At least they make them well. Why anybody would want to watch them making all of that, I don’t know.