The Bear, FX on Hulu’s gripping new series on the relentless strain of running a small restaurant, is grounded in two claustrophobic environments: the cramped kitchen of the Original Beef of Chicagoland, a beleaguered and beloved sandwich joint in Chicago, and the frenetic, viselike anxiety of a deadline. Beef owner Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, played by Jeremy Allen White, stares down the clock with wide eyes and a palpable halo of stress. There are undercut wholesale orders, unpaid bills and uncollected change; he sprints home, hawks clothing for ingredients, sprints back; chops, sizzles and sears, and that’s just in the first five minutes of the first episode.
It’s a high-cortisol view of cooking that is very familiar to audiences, given the plethora of cooking competition shows on every platform. Series such as Masterchef, Chef’s Table, Top Chef, The Great British Bake-off, and Netflix’s recently rebooted Iron Chef have accustomed viewers to the pressure of the kitchen, the heat of the stove and a timer breathing down one’s neck. But that intensity has rarely translated well to scripted television. See: AMC’s bland Feed the Beast in 2016 or, in 2018, Starz’s disappointing Sweetbitter (whose star, Ella Purnell, has found much meatier material on Showtime’s breakout hit Yellowjackets), both limp dramas about the cutthroat New York food scene that struggled to establish stakes beyond the plate or to grip without overdone cliches of anger, sexual tension or neurotic perfectionism.
The Bear, created by Christopher Storer (an executive producer of Ramy and internet verité film par excellence Eighth Grade) has several of those staple ingredients. The Beef’s kitchen is a constant cacophony of shouting, several of the characters are ticking time bombs of grief, and Carmy is an exacting boss over several perfectionists. But its eight half-hour episodes, all released last week, manage to capture the visceral, heart-palpitating adrenaline of the professional kitchen, the financial precarity of the restaurant business, and the drive to subject oneself to it better than any scripted show in recent memory.
This is in large part due to the show’s excellent supporting cast, which emphasizes collaboration over competition and collides formal training with earned expertise. Carmy is a burned out Michelin-star chef who returns to the Beef after his brother Mikey’s suicide. He hires Sydney (Ayo Edibiri), a sardonic culinary school-trained sous chef whose ambition and talent have not yet paid the bills. The two attempt to rein in a motley crew of Beef veterans from Mikey’s chaotic, debt-ridden reign: curious pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce), Somalian immigrant Ebra (Edwin Lee Gibson), caustic line cook Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas, a standout who gets more interesting with each scene), and his non-biological “cousin” Richie (Eben Moss-Bachrach), the mercurial, street-smart interim manager so tightly coiled with grief and rage that I felt my shoulders tense while watching.
The Bear offers the good old-fashioned appeal of voyeurism – the gritty appearance, however accurate, of authenticity and the simulation peeking behind the curtain of a familiar zone (local favorite restaurant that takes its food seriously). The Bear never wavers from its breakneck pace; you quickly become accustomed to the kitchen’s rhythm, the verbal volleys of “yes, chef”, “corner”, “behind”, “hands!”
The combo of chaos and edible beauty speaks to the level of culinary expertise poured into the series. White and Edobiri, who both crash-course trained for their roles at culinary institutes and fine restaurants, pull off the performance of comfort with sharp knives and fire. Storer’s sister Courtney Storer, a professional chef, served as culinary producer. Restaurant chef turned internet celebrity Matty Matheson, a co-producer, appears as an alter ego version of himself – gonzo, uncouth and lovable – in handyman/aspiring kitchen worker Neil Fak. Matheson’s presence also ties The Bear into the viral stakes of the internet food world, a breeding ground for competition as much as creativity, in what is otherwise a very offline show; there’s simply too many orders to fill for characters to be on their phones.
Carmy’s restlessness, his inability to stop working, his formal accolades and trip-wire intensity, has a clear antecedent in the late chef-turned-TV host Anthony Bourdain, who set the mold for the troubled rock-n-roll Serious Chef. The series calls to mind the swiftly cancelled 2005 adaptation of Anthony’s Bourdain 2000 memoir Kitchen Confidential starring Bradley Cooper, who went on to play a Michelin-star chef derailed by drugs and anger issues in 2015’s critically panned Burnt. (Some have argued that The Bear’s conception of Chicago gentrification also seems to date to the mid-2000s.)
Like Bourdain, Carmy is dogged by demons, and The Bear uses Mikey’s absence as legible, palpable motivation for keeping the Beef tenuously afloat. White, a standout from the long-running Chicago-set series Shameless, plays Carmy as bruised and brittle, nearly vibrating with stress and shame, constantly dodging the bear of paralyzing anxiety. He’s too hobbled by grief to function outside the kitchen; the show reveals no interests for Carmy beyond food, no friends outside the Beef, no hobbies or routines outside a few Al-Anon meetings and – unusually for a show in which heat and ego are central concepts – no romantic or sexual interest.
This goes for the show as a whole – other than brief scenes at home as interstitials for work, the lives and personas we come to know exist only in the Beef backroom or an extension thereof. Other than a suggestion of flirtation between Marcus and Sydney that can also play as mutual friendship, The Bear is the rare show without a romantic hook, making it perhaps more accurate to an actual workplace than most. (Which is not to say the show is without eroticism, from the mouth-watering shots of beef sizzling in a cast iron pan to Carmy’s styling as a tattooed, damaged dirtbag heartthrob.) The work here, for better and often for worse, is an all-consuming, ever expansive affair with plenty of room for the show to grow.
The Bear can sometimes wear its heart too much on its sleeve – cue Sufjan Stevens’s Chicago in the seventh episode, or ineffective attempts to blend in Chicago’s dense political history in documentary montages. But it nails something that, like a good meal, you cannot fake: a real sense of urgency, a believable hunger that, rare for a show these days, left me wanting more.
The Bear is available on Hulu in the US and will be on Disney+in the UK later this year