The Bear

4 out of 5

Created by: Christopher Storer

covers season 1

Intense and very appreciably brisk, those same qualities may be part of The Bear’s only real limitation: its half-hour runtime and need to keep focused focused focused on the day-to-day issues found when star chef Carmen Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) takes over his recently deceased brother’s Chicago-local sandwich shop is very tunnel vision, making it hard to suss out what the show’s intentions may be. It also, at select moments, requires some forced shorthand to communicate to us personalities, or changes in those personalities, which are a TV norm and acceptable… except for how sharp The Bear’s writing can otherwise be.

The above one-line summary sounds like a handful of other shows from the past few years, finding drama in having some haute couture someone-or-other slum it in a takeout kitchen or some such. But The Bear never takes that route. Carmen – Carmy – wants to take over “The Original Beef of Chicagoland,” and though there’s definitely some fuss as his used-to-routine staff adjusts to his more stringent methods, it is a push-and-pull that Bear’s writers effect reasonably, having all the chefs and workers find a balance and synergy at a realistic clip – not earned too easily; not beset by someone trying to sabotage things, or some other cheap TV ploy. Carmy updates the menu slightly, and brings in an eager and talented assistant, Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) who forms an interesting counterpoint: Carmy is trying to find reason and control post his brother’s death by enforcing routine; Sydney appreciates the order, but is at a stage of wanting to prove her cooking bona fides by shaking things up. These two personalities challenge the other, both positively and adversarially, mixed with power and gender dynamics that are painful to watch / see because they’re all too real in the indirect ways in which they often play out.

The Bear further fascinates with its mix of cultures in the kitchen, leaving commentary on those different experiences to the side in favor of letting these actors fully embody their roles, and we can observe and have our own thoughts on how they got to where they are. Ebon Moss-Bachrach and Abby Elliott complete the mix, the former playing Carmy’s “cousin,” Richie – actually unrelated – something of a legacy hire at the shop due to a long-standing friendship with the Berzatto brothers, and the latter playing Carmy’s sister, “Sugar,” the occasional voice of reason (part of the show’s shorthand) who pops up to tell Carmy that he’s not processing their brother’s death.

This is not food porn, and it’s for the best. Actual chefs may tell me otherwise, but, with much of the action taking place in The Original Beef’s kitchen, we get to see what feels like very real kitchen interplay – lots of dedicated lingo and lots of messes and a cramped space and a non-stop pace, and it’s employed not to make five-star meals, but rather greasy, sloppy sandwiches. The set is lived in, and the actors all do an amazing job of convincing us (or me) of the reality of the cooking and the lifestyle, which – for the entire crew – is an extension of their personalities: they all want to be there.

But what is The Bear about? “Sugar” is right: Carmy isn’t processing his brother’s death, and his avoidance of that – and how he may or may not come to terms with it as problems bloat and deflate at The Original Beef – is likely the arc, here. But that’s not exactly clear. While the show smartly avoids any excessive subplots, we do spend time with Sydney, and Richie, and dessert chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce), and we don’t spend much time talking about things directly, save snatches of conversations between meals. That is very brave scripting, as it’s not very TV-etic and is probably closer to how many of us handle problems in the real world, dealing with them by proxy – and that’s what all of these cooks are doing, to an extent – but combined with the short runtime, it can also seem like The Bear doesn’t know what it’s about; that the show has hardly started before it ends.

That’s also because you’re likely to watch this in one or two gos, though, as it’s very addictive. And I’d always prefer a show that achieves something different imperfectly as opposed to another procedural carbon copy. The Bear goes way beyond that, crafting a small, fully functional world of living, breathing characters, and sets things a’spin in a way that feels continually immersive, without necessarily relying on cheap TV tricks to pull us in.