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Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto ricochets around his ramshackle Chicago restaurant like a man burning from the inside. From the moment he first appears in the new Hulu/FX series The Bear, we recognize the type: brooding bad boy chef with tousled hair and armful of tattoos. Every restaurant-dense city in America probably has its share, presiding over kitchens that are, as Anthony Bourdain put it Kitchen Confidential, “noisy, debauched and overloaded with faux testosterone.”
The golden era of prestige cable and streaming shows fed on just such macho renegades; in fact, FX built its brand on series like Rescue Me (edgy, troubled firemen), The Shield (edgy, troubled cops) and Sons of Anarchy (edgy, troubled bikers). So it’s surprising that it’s taken TV so long to get around to edgy, troubled chefs. An attempt to adapt Kitchen Confidential into a network series—starring Bradley Cooper, no less— flamed out back in 2005.
In recent post-MeToo years, there has been a reconsideration of the myth of the lone male genius chef. Too often this figure has been entangled with a toxic, abusive work culture, a restaurant industry in which bullying and sexual harassment were accepted and ignored as byproducts of the high-pressure command structure. This is the moment that The Bear steps into, eyes wide open and ready to pull the tablecloth out from under the whole thing. Carmy, played with extraordinary magnetism by Jeremy Allen White, is a neighborhood kid made good. He has honed his skills in some of America’s best restaurants (French Laundry! Noma!) and has the physical and psychic scars to prove it. Now he’s back in his family restaurant, the Original Beef of Chicagoland, having inherited it from his late brother Michael. It is in a state of complete chaos: filthy, undisciplined, and crushed by debt. All of this fuels Carmy’s mounting panic, which is matched by the series’ taut pacing, propelling us through each frenetic and poetic half-hour episode.
Sometimes Carmy has flashbacks to one of the great restaurants where he trained. Unlike the Original Beef, that high-end kitchen is gleaming, white, and orderly, full of delicately arranged dishes that look more like paintings than meals. But Carmy’s boss there (played by Joel McHale) is a sadistic chef who taunts and tortures his staff. “You’re terrible at this, you’re no good at it,” he goads Carmy. “Go faster, motherfucker!” All the while the camera stays on Carmy’s despairing blue eyes as he frenziedly turns out a beautiful plate of food.
Chafing under the wild male genius mantle, Carmy is determined to be a different kind of chef who runs a different kind of restaurant. He hires Sydney Adamu (Ayo Edebiri), an ambitious Culinary Institute of America graduate, to help him whip Original Beef into a new shape. Sydney is overqualified to be sous chef in a local dive, but she worships Carmy’s food and shares his vision of a kinder, gentler food culture. “It doesn’t have to be a place where the food is shitty and everybody acts shitty,” she says. It’s not easy to convince the existing kitchen staff, who are wary of these Escoffier-worshipping strangers. Especially resistant is Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a swaggering friend of the family who had been running the restaurant along with Carmy’s brother. Richie sees Carmy as a pretentious upstart, the one who escaped while he stayed behind and kept Original Beef going.
“I do not care what you do up in Napa with your tweezers and your foie gras,” Richie booms, ordering Carmy to serve the restaurant’s traditional spaghetti instead of the fancy new dish he’s cooked up. Then Richie sneaks off to taste Carmy’s food and groans with pleasure. Other staffers find themselves newly inspired. Original Beef pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce) grows adorably obsessed with creating the perfect donut, while old school line cook Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) gradually drops her seething resentment and embraces the new vibe. “This is real and alive and… good,” she says, surprising herself as much as anyone.
Just as Carmy aspires to create a culinary workplace that doesn’t revolve around a single dictatorial auteur, The Bear is an ensemble production packed with prickly, vibrant performances. Sydney is self-assured and has perfect comic timing (Edibiri has a background in stand-up), while Abby Elliott is good (if underused) as Carmy’s sister, Sugar. She’s frustrated by his inability to express feelings, though the camera captures glimpses of the immense sorrow pulsing under his skin. And Richie—he’s an asshole and he knows it, confessing sadly that his young daughter asked if his full name is really “Richie Bad News” because that’s how he is listed in his ex’s phone. He has spent his life as a sidekick to Carmy’s charming big brother, and now he is struggling to find his place in this new order. But Richie and Carmy are not so different: each is gobbling pills, trying to suppress their grief over Michael’s loss. It’s only in the finale that Carmy finally lets loose in an intense seven-minute monologue.
The Bear constantly walks a line between quiet realism and hyperactive fantasy. Over and over, showrunners/directors Christopher Storer and Joanna Calo (whose collective resume includes Ramy, Hacks and Bojack Horseman) raise the action to a fever pitch and then pull back. Fires erupt, fuses blow, windows get shot, violence breaks out. There are a few points when plotlines veer into the ridiculous, but I’d rather see the show push things too far than play it safe and make the same old spaghetti.
If you’ve ever watched the reality series Kitchen Nightmares, in which Gordon Ramsay brutally critiques restaurants that have fallen into decline, you’ll recognize some of the dysfunctional-family elements at play in The Bear. Because despite all of Carmy’s best intentions, he can’t keep his demons in check. “Is there a name for that thing where you’re afraid of something good happening because you think something bad’s gonna happen?” he asks Richie, who responds: “I dunno, life?”
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