The Bear doesn’t waste time setting up the world it exists in; it throws you right into the fire. The eight-episode FX/Hulu show from Christopher Storer that was made fully available to critics puts us on the back of Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), an accomplished chef who cut his teeth in the fine dining world and has returned to Chicago to take over his family’s grungy sandwich shop The Original Beef of Chicagoland. The reason for Carmy’s return isn’t a fall from grace or a break in his confidence fueled by the notoriously cutthroat atmosphere of Michelin-star restaurants. It’s closer to home: his brother Mikey committed suicide and left the shop to Carmy, even though there are hints of an icy—or at least, emotionally distant—relationship between the brothers.
Filling in the margins of the show are Carmy’s brother’s best friend and manager of the restaurant, Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who detests Carmy’s pretentious attitude; Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), an accomplished chef in her own right who wants to learn from Carmy; and a slew of line workers who aren’t interested in wearing matching aprons or following orders from a relative newcomer. If the premise sounds like it could be that of a sitcom, you’re not wrong. But the tone and intensity with which it’s told—honing in on Carmy’s perspective and utilizing overlapping dialogue that induces a claustrophobic feeling—makes it feel far more serious than it would from another perspective.
It’s now a given that a culinary-based show isn’t going to be sunshine and roses; the food world is no joke, and everything from Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen to Kitchen Confidential show the darker side of the industry. The Bear certainly shares some tonality with those shows, but also subtly pokes fun at the idea that every kitchen has to be an aggressive atmosphere. Carmy’s sensibilities, like introducing a hierarchy in the kitchen, feels stifling for a crew who treats the job as a paycheck instead of their life’s work, and who actually enjoy each other’s company. The frenetic energy is a byproduct of Carmy taking this role too seriously and trying to transform the sandwich shop into something much bigger than it’s ever been destined to be, and the clash of the two worlds is fascinating to watch in real time. There’s even an episode that is seemingly a single take, upping the ante of the intensity of the kitchen and guiding audiences through the chaos in real time.
The real charm of the show is in the relationships. Both Richie and Carmy are grappling with the loss of Mikey, and their personalities are completely at odds with one another: Richie despises Carmy’s holier-than-thou attitude and the fact that Mikey didn’t trust him with the shop, and Carmy clearly thinks of Richie as uncouth. They couldn’t be more opposite in demeanor, but their love for Mikey holds them together and manifests in their own, slightly repressed, ways. It’s as much a show about grief and masculinity as it is about running a sandwich shop, and both White and Moss-Bachrach are fully committed to their ends of the spectrum. If there is anything to nitpick it’s that Richie is bombastic, aggressive, and often sucks the air out of the room, leaving very little space for anyone else to exist. That characterization works well against Carmy’s more reserved attitude, but occasionally undermines the balance with the rest of the cast.
Likewise, Sydney and Carmy have an instant chemistry from their backgrounds in fancier restaurant settings, and lean on each other as stewards of a more sophisticated kitchen. Edebiri is especially winning after Sydney is given the title of Sous Chef and is dumped with the task of herding everyone into the adopted French cuisine kitchen hierarchy that Carmy is trying to force on The Original Beef of Chicagoland. As she vacillates between nervously addressing the kitchen to becoming increasingly more irritated with their defiance, her performance is magnetic. Lionel Boyce is also a treat as a fellow employee who is perfecting his craft, and relishes the opportunity to work with a chef as accomplished as Carmy.
Shows like The Bear—with its fully formed tone, presentation, and performances—don’t come around often. Make sure you tune in: it’s a chef’s kiss.
All 8 episodes of The Bear are available starting Thursday, June 23rd on Hulu.
Radhika Menon is a pop culture-obsessed writer and filmmaker living in New York City. Her work has appeared in NY Post’s Decider, Teen Vogue, Vulture and more, and is featured in Brown Girl Magazine‘s first ever print anthology. She is a proud alumna of the University of Michigan and thinks she’s funny on Twitter.
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