I first heard of The Bear as ‘that show about the dirty hot chef’. And if you’ve ever worked in hospitality and nurtured a futile crush on some stringy-haired, hollow-eyed kitchen goblin covered in tattoos and stove-burn scars, it doesn’t disappoint.
As Carmen ‘Carmy’ Berzatto, Jeremy Allen White is indeed chaotically sexy, in heavy white cotton T-shirts cunningly tailored to cup his biceps and skim his hips. But he’s also unbelievably stressed out. Having conquered the fine-dining world at an impressively young age, Carmy is now back home in Chicago, not at all coping with the cascading fallout from his older brother Michael’s (Jon Bernthal) recent death by suicide.
Michael has left Carmy the family restaurant, The Original Beef of Chicagoland – an old-school hot Italian beef sandwich joint on the brink of financial ruin. Learning how much money Michael owed to their ‘connected’ uncle Jimmy (Oliver Platt), Carmy doubles down on his work, refusing to sell Jimmy the business.
The Bear is one of 2022’s standout shows. I’ve written and discarded a thousand corny food metaphors to describe how absorbing it is, how expertly it’s crafted, how impressively it packs so much complex, characterful storytelling into each of its eight short episodes, and how satisfying it is to ponder. It’s a show about pride, nostalgia, addiction and trauma, about how family – born and found – can help counterbalance the destructive forces of toxic masculinity, rise-and-grind capitalism and even urban gentrification.
Transforming this old-fashioned restaurant into a culinary and financial triumph, and its laid-back kitchen staff into a disciplined team, is clearly Carmy’s way to honour and mourn his flawed brother, even though his little sister and reluctant business partner Sugar (Abby Elliott) worries that he’s hiding from reality in a hot kitchen.
But a large part of what makes the show so riveting is White’s portrayal of a man on the edge, holding back utter chaos by cooking through it. Will he succeed or fail? The Bear keeps us on that knife-edge.
Sauté, don’t tell
The Bear has been billed as a half-hour comedy. Creator Christopher Storer is known for directing and producing stand-up specials for comedians including Bo Burnham, Ramy Youssef and Jerrod Carmichael – all of whom he’s gone on to work with in film and TV projects (Eighth Grade, Ramy, On the Count of Three).
But none of Storer’s comedy work is light-heartedly funny – and nor is The Bear. Its humour is mordant – a word that comes, appropriately enough, from the Latin mordere, to bite. And the shout and bustle of the Beef’s kitchen has the rapid pace and physicality of screwball comedy, but also the fraught, raw quality of documentary.
My first impression of the show was the powerfully stressful atmosphere of its kitchen scenes. The actors bustle about and yell at each other over background alt-rock music, revving machines, and the clash of pots and dishes hitting hard surfaces.
It’s here that the show sketches out Carmy’s allies and antagonists. Marcus (Lionel Boyce), the in-house baker, dreams of becoming a pastry chef and is drawn to Carmy’s haute-cuisine background. Carmy also hires young, ambitious Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) as sous chef, and her ideas energise the Beef while her impatience risks its precarious finances.
But not everyone welcomes the prodigal brother. Veteran line cook Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) passively resists Carmy’s cheffy updates to her familiar system, and quietly sabotages the much younger Sydney. And Michael’s blustering, hot-tempered best friend Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) constantly asserts himself as the Beef’s front-of-house manager and protector of Michael’s legacy, which Carmy is overriding.
All these conflicts play out through action, in a spectacular demonstration of ‘sauté, don’t tell’. Storer and co-showrunner Joanna Calo pull tight on concentrating faces and busy hands – sometimes the only focused spots in a frame of foreground and background blur – and editors Joanna Naugle and Adam Epstein chop scenes together with the speed and precision of a sharp knife slicing onions.
We’re seeing what the characters see – a wall clock; a boiling pot; a walk-in chiller. And we see their flashbacks, too – both short, traumatic impressions and lovingly held memories.
Moments of masculinity
Because the show’s pace is often so frenetic, its still moments are most striking, and equally telling of character. Just as Carmy can’t run the Beef alone, White doesn’t carry The Bear by himself. The whole cast is terrific, and every character feels like a real person striving for dignity.
Masculinity is clearly in Storer’s satirical sights, because the show’s comedy comes at the expense of male characters’ self-image. As Uncle Jimmy, Platt has the resigned sarcasm of a disappointed patriarch. Sugar’s dopey husband Pete (Chris Witaske) is always thrilled just to be included. And the running gag that Neil Fak – Carmy’s childhood friend and now sometime handyman and fixer – yearns in vain to be a chef is funnier because he’s played by real-life chef Matty Matheson (who’s also a writer and producer here).
Apart from Carmy, the most poignant character for me is Richie: someone whose selfhood comes from lost sources. His childhood neighbourhood is changing around him; his best friend is dead and his marriage is over. The only thing Richie has left is the Beef – which is why he fusses over the restaurant’s old menu, and its logo T-shirts. He’s like its ancient arcade game machine, which will never come back the same if it’s ever turned off.
Richie copes by lashing out at others and blaming them. But one of Moss-Bachrach’s finest moments is when he and Sydney have just gone on a hardware-store mission, where Richie has refused advice and so has bought the wrong product. Now, as they’re sitting angrily in Richie’s car, he takes a phone call with his young daughter, tenderly reassuring her it’s okay to be scared and anxious.
This is The Bear’s power: it sneaks its key ideas into moments and places you don’t expect them. Like Carmy himself, it brings a bravura display of elite-level skill to an unassuming setting. It’s a massive achievement in TV. And yet to most people, it’s still that show about the dirty hot chef in his white T-shirt.
Creator: Christopher Storer
Writers: Christopher Storer, Karen Joseph Adcock, Sofya Levitsky-Weitz, Alex O’Keefe, Joanna Calo, Rene Gube, Catherine Schetina
Producers: Tyson Bidner, Matty Matheson
Executive Producers: Christopher Storer, Joanna Calo, Hiro Murai, Nate Matteson
Directors: Christopher Storer, Joanna Calo
The Bear is currently streaming on Disney+