FX’s ‘The Bear’: Food as a love language

Most television shows happily sacrifice accuracy in the name of emotional investment. Lawyers spend more time wringing out dramatic courtroom confessions than filing paperwork; detectives jump to impossible conclusions within the neat span of a half-hour episode; hackers instantly gain access to scandalous government secrets after banging on a keyboard for five seconds. The tedious drudgery of real life is treated as meaningless filler keeping viewers from the good stuff: drama, romance, character development. 

Christopher Storer, director of FX’s dramedy “The Bear,” has taken a different tack. “The Bear” treats the everyday minutiae of restaurant work as a vehicle for — not an obstacle to — audience engagement, creating one of the best, most anxiety-inducing series of the summer.

When famous chef Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) inherits his late brother Mikey’s grimy Chicago sandwich joint, he’s unwittingly stepping into a lion’s — or, rather, a bear’s — den of seething tension. Mikey’s mismanagement has left The Original Beef mired in countless health-code violations and crushing debt. The old guard resents Carmy’s efforts to update their workplace: revamping classic recipes, implementing a French brigade, making his employees call each other “chef.” Carmy is grieving his brother, traumatized by the abusive Michelin-star kitchen he used to work in — and stubbornly refusing to come to terms with any of it by throwing himself into the endless, unforgiving challenge of keeping The Original Beef afloat.

This day-to-day struggle forms the core of each half-hour episode of “The Bear,” and is portrayed so realistically that many real-life chefs have described the show as “triggering.” The show is set almost entirely within the fluorescent halls of The Original Beef’s kitchen. Most episodes lack a structured plot; at the start of each installment, it’s clear something has gone wrong, but the audience finds out about it only in dribs and drabs through the cast’s colorful smack talk as they go about preparing the day’s food. (As an aside, said food preparation is absolutely gorgeous to watch. Don’t watch “The Bear” hungry, or at least without accepting that you’ll be craving beef braciole for the next week.)

What’s so gripping about a show where ninety percent of the action involves braising beef and julienning potatoes? The same thing that gets people hooked on “Kitchen Nightmares” and “The Great British Baking Show”: the unwritten narrative inherent to making food in the company of others. The Original Beef is one step from bankruptcy, so every meal prepared decides whether the restaurant might live to open another day. The cast is perpetually at each other’s throats, with every offhand remark risking an all-out fight. Of special note is the single-take hellstorm that is episode seven, possibly the best episode of the season, wherein the introduction of a new mobile-order system leads to — minor spoilers — one incensed employee stabbing another in the buttock.

All of this would be for naught, of course, if we didn’t care about these characters enough to read between the lines. That’s another thing “The Bear” gets right: its cast is magnetic, bouncing off each other with a practiced chaos that leaves the audience spellbound. Even within the tight span of eight half-hour episodes, even the most minor characters don’t remain static, every single employee at The Original Beef has secrets to reveal, character development to undergo and relationships to build. Some particularly arresting performances include Original Beef newcomer and audience surrogate Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), Mikey’s quick-to-anger best friend Richie (Ebon Moss-Barach) and Carmy’s long-suffering sister Sugar (Abby Elliott).

At the center of it all, despite appearing in person for all of three minutes, is Mikey (Jon Bernthal). He was the star that the entire cast’s lives revolved around: Carmy’s inspiration to become a chef, Sugar’s business partner, Richie’s closest confidante, the restaurant crew’s stalwart leader. After he committed suicide, no one is quite sure how to operate in a world that doesn’t include him.

“The Bear” is a show about food, but it’s also a show about twelve quietly grieving people trapped in a kitchen, desperate for understanding and comfort, unable to communicate their hurt to one another. They never learned how — never thought it’d be necessary. But they have no choice but to clock in to work every day in a world that’s slightly off its axis, and to support each other the only way they know: braising beef and julienning potatoes.

“The Bear” is available to stream on Hulu.


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