When I finished FX’s The Bear on Hulu earlier this week (it took me two days, and only because I felt slightly bad on night one about finishing it without my wife, who goes to bed too early for true binges, before using whatever small marital capital I had on night two to extract her grudging permission to leap ahead), I did what I often do when I love a show, which is to immediately see what people are saying about it online. Part of this is healthy, I think; the desire to talk about an effective piece of art, but without the inconvenience of real human interaction. There is another part that’s less healthy and more self-sabotaging, and that’s the intentional search for all the dopes who didn’t get it in order to get mad at them. Lucky for me, I managed to get both fixes on a Reddit thread titled “The Bear is so good.”
There’s a lot of general praise in there, but having been classically trained to fixate on the negative, there were two comments that stood out:
1. “It’s defined as a dramady [sic] but I’m 2 episodes in and I’m wondering when it gets funny” (53 upvotes)
2. “Yeah it’s one of the things that bugs me the most in modern tv. I have started so many shows labeled “comedy” that simply aren’t very funny. They are dramas where the characters crack a few jokes.” (42 upvotes)
I found this a little mystifying, because to me, The Bear was hilarious. This is something I’d run across before, though—the discomfort some people have with movies or TV where drama and comedy co-exist without apology. I love a pure outright comedy as much as anyone (think Arrested Development, It’s Always Sunny), but when the two co-exist in perfect artistic harmony, there’s something sublime about it. I think that particular belief of mine comes from the belief that in real life, comedy and drama are two sides of the same coin, and sometimes the saddest moments are infused with humor, and vice versa. When a show like The Bear can effectively capture that truth, it hits with a magnitude that a straightforward comedy or a straightforward drama can never quite reach. But as the Reddit thread indicated, there are plenty of people who like comedy and drama to stay in their lanes, and can become uncomfortable or confused or just annoyed when the lanes merge.
(One thing mentioned a few times in that thread by the “how is this funny?” crowd is that the one part they liked was when the Ecto Cooler made all the kids pass out at the party. I was fine with that, but it also felt like the one moment in the show where the comedy was more of a set-up gag and less organic, and maybe just slightly outside the show’s wheelhouse. To each their own.)
With all that said, one scene stuck out to me as the perfect representation of how The Bear nails what I’ll call The Confluence. It happens in the second episode, when the health inspector discovers a litany of problems within the restaurant that force her to give them a “C” grade, and which provokes a heated, nerve wracking, but also hilarious shouting match between Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) and Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). It ends with Richie having to go to the hardware store for caulk, and though he bridles at the idea of Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) driving him and insists on an Uber (his own license is revoked), the argument ends when Carmy shouts “surge rates, fucko!” at him. Which settles it.
At the hardware store, predictably, Richie whines and refuses to ask for help when confronted with the array of caulk, and we’re reasonably sure when we leave that he’s bought the wrong one. The scene I want to talk about, though, comes in immediately after the store, when Richie and Syd are together in the car. Richie can’t stop complaining about Carmy, and Syd defends him: “Did you know he was one of Food & Wine’s best new chefs when he was 21?” Richie responds by going into full sexist mode, telling her to calm down, and that, “I’m not discriminating, man or woman, it’s dangerous to be behind the wheel when you’re hysterical.”
And then something totally unexpected happens.”Why the fuck does she keep calling me?” Richie says, and picks up his phone. With Syd looking on, he has a heartbreaking conversation with his ex-wife and then his daughter, who is having trouble at school. In the next 100 seconds, with the camera about a foot from his face, Moss-Bachrach delivers the performance of the entire season, and it’s achingly sad. In this short span, we get a small but illuminating glimpse of his life outside the restaurant, and Richie, who has been up until this point a defensive, arrogant pain in the ass, is infused with new humanity. He’s still an asshole, but now we understand why he’s an asshole, at least a little, and we also understand what he loves, and why he cares so much about the restaurant. It’s a complete masterclass, and though it runs the risk of being too on-the-nose, or too corny, the way it’s written and acted draws you in instantly and completely.
Then it’s over, and you’re staggered, and there must have been a temptation on the writers’ parts to milk this newfound empathy we feel for him, to give him and Syd a capital-m Moment. They start in that direction, but it’s a feint.
“How old is she?” asks Syd, not quite knowing what to say.
“She’s five,” he replies. “Like Carmy. Food & Wine’s best new dickhead.”
It’s a brilliant line, a brilliant time to inject humor, and just as unexpected as the departure into sadness two minutes earlier. Syd sighs, and their dynamic is quickly re-established. At that point, they do go for a bit of sentiment. Richie admits he screwed up with the health inspector, and that he got the wrong caulk. “You did,” Syd replies. She lifts a plastic bag. “But I didn’t.”
The whole thing only lasts three minutes, but it’s a wonderful example of how humor can exist within sadness, and how that humor can be mined from character alone, and from a line that wouldn’t be notable or especially hilarious in another context. It can actually be more difficult to execute that kind of humor, I think, than the more overt kind involving set-ups and one-liners, just because the acting and directing has to be so perfect. To do drama and comedy equally well requires a subtle touch from everyone involved, and when that kind of collective understanding coheres in a show like The Bear, the result is timeless.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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