The Bear - Full Season Review

I really like how traditional cooking shows have been supplanted by shows and movies about people who cook. It's nice to have a human context to the life and experience necessary to make something that tastes great. And now, Hulu (in their ongoing successful experiment of partnering with FX) provides a series that glops urgency, vulnerability, and workplace drama on top of all that wonderful food-porn. At only 8 episodes--some of them startlingly brief--"The Bear" compresses what feels like years of that context and experience into savory morsels that really hit the spot.

Jeremy Allen White has always had an scrappy intensity that was palpable on Showtime's "Shameless," and while William H. Macy and Emmy Rossum soaked up a lot of the show's biggest  accolades, it was White providing a brooding, sometimes explosive energy that really gave the family Gallagher their unapologetic, rough-hewn cadence that felt authentic. Now, as perpetually anxious and begrudgingly professional Carm, a fine dining dynamo forced to salvage his brother's decrepit Italian beef sandwich shop, White has found a character that matches his skillset perfectly. He certainly looks the part, covered in random tattoos and scars, filthy and sweaty from hard labor and somehow smelling of unfiltered smokes through the TV screen. There are many layers to the performance: the mean streets upbringing, the meticulous years of training and honing from tightwad executive chefs, the trauma of a recent death in the family, the ulcer-inducing hardship of crippling debt and constant business problems.

The other biggest leads of the show are the polar opposites pulling Carm in two different directions. Ebon Moss-Bachrach is a commanding presence as Richie, The Beef's stalwart front-house manager and something of a streetwise punk despite being a father in his forties. Representing Carm's youth (and his recently deceased older brother, Richie's best friend), he bristles at the restaurant's pivots toward elegant food and expedited business practices while raging at the death of the monoculture that shaped him--the Blackhawks, the after-hours bars, the wiseguys on the corner. It's not a sympathetic character on paper, as Richie is a complete asshole, but Moss-Bachrach succeeds in injecting some gravitas into Richie primarily in smaller moments when speaking with his little girl or hiding the anguish of his mistakes and grief. 

On the other side of the spectrum, Ayo Edebiri provides a wonderful balance as Sidney, a classically trained sous chef brought in by Carm to help whip The Beef into a shape that is sustainable and reputable. The character is positioned to be the audience's POV, the young and nice professional we are supposed to latch onto as a voice of reason and the "normie" who has wandered into a kitchen filled with crazies. After a few episodes, that veneer wears off and we see her as a more fully fleshed out person. While Richie is a study in one giant defense mechanism covering lots of insecurity and heartache, Sidney is the exact opposite: earnestness and idealism covering a series of small defense mechanisms. Edebiri has a terrific deadpan delivery when pointing out the restaurant's ass-backwards system and the cartoonish hostility her new ideas provoke, but what makes Sidney a compelling character are the actor's use of her voice, her physicality, and a somewhat natural meek quality to convey a powerful, skillful chef's reliance on passive-aggressive or petulant choices. 

Viewers have been at odds as to the show's realism. Its depiction of a fast-paced restaurant kitchen, with profane tirades and shouty jargon and familial tender connections overlapping quick enough to make it through a lunch rush, has been praised by most who have worked a line. Conversely, native Chicagoans have balked at the series for painting the River North area of the city as a crumbling wasteland of urban decay when the neighborhood has been thoroughly gentrified, Starbucks-ified, and populated by art galleries and posh nightclubs for years. The show doesn't delve far into the racial and financial segregation baked into the city, nor does it compliment the aesthetic with any area-specific music aside from a heavy dose of Wilco. Make no mistake, "The Bear" takes place in a much more heavily white-populated, pre-melting pot picture of Chicago. I'm not sure if it's intentional, to highlight the multicultural and multigenerational kitchen dynamic inside The Beef, the show's fictional facsimile of real-life Mr. Beef on Orleans Street. But it's conspicuous.

Structurally, "The Bear" shows off its status as a streaming series that would likely never work on traditional television. Starting out reasonable enough, with episodes split into A and B plots that pair off characters for chemistry purposes, the show takes one episode to go on a sort of "field trip" for a catering gig, and before you know it we've gotten a good strong glimpse into the lives of our main three characters and quite a few of the supporting staff. Then, with a clear establishment of where everyone is at emotionally and functionally, series creator Christopher Storer and executive producer Joanna Calo drop the hammer, in the form of Episode 7, "The Review." 

Retooled from the original script to be a single 20-minute camera take, and shot claustrophobically around the narrow corners of the kitchen line and largely in close-ups on the cast, "The Review" is an absolute monster. It's a perfect thesis for "The Bear" as an assault of relentless tension and strained communication that never gives the audience time to breathe. It gets hilarious and surreal, then it gets ugly and tragic, and at no point is anyone allowed to stop because the orders keep coming in and the clock is ticking. Though it likely won't be as well remembered, in my mind it rivals classic "Breaking Bad" episode "Fly" in terms of using spatial storytelling to convey an (albeit completely different) existential emotional turmoil.

This is immediately followed by the finale episode, which starts off with Carm giving a cathartic share at an Al-Anon meeting. Jeremy Allen White speaks directly to camera for almost a third of the episode's length, driving home how tall his brother's shadow looms over him and the weight of their relationship, and the nightmares he's been suffering, and what the restaurant represents to him. These two episodes back-to-back make a good case for how pacing can be a powerful ingredient for these "FX on Hulu" productions, much like last year's "Reservation Dogs" did in several standalone episodes.

It becomes clear that "The Bear" is a show built on rich and flavorful ingredients, but much like the sandwiches themselves, its real character is found in the inherent lived-in, sloppy blending together of the final product. Deceptively, it's actually a result of lots of professional precision and consistency.

Season Rating: A-

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