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A young, talented chef moves back home to Chicago from New York after he inherits his deceased brother’s struggling restaurant and vows to turn it around despite the many forces working against his success.
Jeremy Allen White (Shameless) leads a deep cast of talent, including Ebon Moss-Bachrach (The Punisher, Girls), and Ayo Edebiri (Dickinson). You may also recognize Joel McHale, Oliver Platt, and Molly Ringwald in smaller roles. Punisher fans will appreciate the mini reunion when Jon Bernthal shows up in one episode. Christopher Storer, whose previous work includes directing a number of stand-up specials, created the show as well as serving as a writer, producer, and director on several episodes.
The first episode of The Bear throws you into the thick of a busy kitchen and doesn’t let up for 27 minutes straight. It’s frenetic, loud, rude, and a pretty good indication of what we’re in for in future episodes. I’ll admit, most of my knowledge of what it’s like to work in a restaurant comes from TV, so I couldn’t say how authentic this show is, but I can say that it feels authentic. I’ve always appreciated shows that don’t talk down to their audience. When you watch ER or The West Wing the technical jargon comes at you hard and fast, but you don’t need to know what it means. It’s enough to know that the characters do.
The series settles into a more natural rhythm from the second episode on, and lets you get to know the characters better. Which is great, because these are some characters you really want to get to know. Jeremy Allen White as Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto is the show’s center of gravity, a solid point to fix your gaze on in the middle of the chaos. He’s left a promising career behind as a celebrated chef at one of the top restaurants in New York to run The Original Beef of Chicagoland, a small family sandwich shop that barely made it through the pandemic. Besides turning the business around, he’s dealing with the traumatic death of his brother, his sister’s resentment, and his own mental health challenges. It’s a heavy load, but White manages it adeptly. Fortunately, those orbiting around him are compelling enough to keep from being eclipsed by the lead character.
Ayo Edebiri is a particular standout and the show’s unsung hero as ambitious sous-chef Sydney. She’s the new kid in the kitchen, put in the tough position of carrying out Carmy’s strategy to fix the restaurant’s broken systems. It’s no easy task. Despite her organizational skills and classical training, the rest of the longtime staff doesn’t accept or respect her, and Carmy is often too wrapped up in his own problems to have her back. As the series progresses, though, she learns to stand her ground, stick up for herself, and show tremendous ingenuity under pressure. Meanwhile, Ebon Moss-Bachrach throws everything he has into Richie, Carmy’s hotheaded “cousin,” who ran the restaurant before Carmy arrived and has his own way of doing things (even if that way nearly put the place out of business). He’s a complicated guy, all brash ego on the outside, with hints at a raw, damaged soul beneath that hard surface. Finally, I have to mention how much I enjoy Lionel Boyce as aspiring pastry chef Marcus, whose obsession with desserts is sweetly endearing (sorry, I just had to get in one food pun).
On a larger scale, The Bear celebrates the art of cooking without pretension, while not glossing over the systemic problems within the modern restaurant industry. It’s about the sacrifices we make pursuing perfection and success at all costs, and the damage it can cause, mentally and physically. The remedy put forth here is in rediscovering the value of feeding and serving a community, and not just with food. Zoom in further and you get an unexpectedly moving depiction of the aftermath of trauma and a portrait of an extended family of misfits who manage to come together when it counts the most.
The Bear is a fast-tempo character study set behind the scenes of a family-run Chicago restaurant. It invites you in to pull up a chair and watch the drama unfold, but never lets you get too comfortable. You may even find yourself craving a beef sandwich after watching it.
Your foodie friends, or anyone who’s a fan of cooking shows, especially Kitchen Nightmares. You can talk about what Gordon Ramsay would have made of The Original Beef at the beginning of the series.
Matty Matheson, who plays Fak—a handyman who drops by The Original Beef to fix things and make jokes—and also serves as a producer on the show is an actual chef in real life who’s written cookbooks and hosted the Viceland series It’s Suppertime.