‘The Bear’: Darkly funny Chicago restaurant show demands to be devoured
Prestigious chef takes over the family’s ramshackle Italian beef joint on the frenetic series on Hulu.
When we think of TV cooking shows, the titles that spring to mind are the reality-competition series such as “Top Chef” and “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Cupcake Wars,” as opposed to mostly forgotten dramatic and/or comedic efforts, e.g., Starz’ “Sweetbitter” and AMC’s “Feed the Beast” and did you know Bradley Cooper played a fictionalized version of Anthony Bourdain on Fox’s short-lived “Kitchen Confidential” in 2005, a decade before Cooper played a chef in the feature film “Burnt”?
No worries. I’m not sure even Bradley remembers that TV show. Now we finally have a series with all the necessary ingredients on the menu to make for a long-running, satisfying, immensely entertaining, decidedly Chicago-centric, restaurant-based hit: FX/Hulu’s “The Bear,” a darkly funny, frenetic and intense gem that will make you very hungry and most likely will ring the bell of authenticity for anyone who has ever worked or is currently employed in the restaurant business.
If Jeremy Allen White’s genius-smart but troubled Lip from “Shameless” had decided to disown the Gallagher family, change his name and become a chef, he wouldn’t be dissimilar to White’s Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, a rising Michelin star who escaped his crazy, working-class family in Chicago, fled to Manhattan and worked at one of the best restaurants in the world — but has now returned home after his beloved older brother Michael committed suicide and left him in charge of the family’s semi-legendary and charmingly ramshackle joint, The Original Beef of Chicagoland. (Think River North’s Mr. Beef with a more ambitious menu).
An eight-episode series available Thursday on Hulu.
We know Carmy’s got a lot on his mind and is dealing with a myriad of demons because the first time we see him in the premiere episode, he’s on the Clark Street Bridgeabove the Chicago River, unlocking a cage containing an actual bear. (Spoiler alert! It’s a dream sequence.) From that startling moment, showrunners and directors Christopher Storer (who created the series) and Joanna Calo plunge us into the chaotic world of the restaurant, which has a Billy Goat-style illuminated menu behind the counter (next to a Blackhawks jersey), a mishmash of crooked framed photos on the wall, some old-school arcade games and a cramped kitchen with a tiny nook of an office. (Full disclosure: My sister was the series’ property master.)
“I’m still trying to figure this place out, see how Michael was doing everything and I want to get you your money,” Carmy says to an unseen creditor on the phone, as we see a medley of unpaid bills and Past Due notices, indicating The Original Beef of Chicagoland is in danger of going under if Carmy doesn’t make some fast moves and some big changes, like yesterday. We’re quickly introduced to the core players who will populate the crowded kitchen and toggle back and forth between working together as a cohesive unit and wanting to kill each other, often within the span of the same shift:
- Ayo Edebiri’s Sydney is a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef who finds herself back at Square One after her catering company failed. She’s a great admirer of Carmy’s work. His brusque manner? Not so much.
- Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s Richie is the manager of the restaurant and a volatile hothead who was best friends with Michael and thinks nothing should change. To say Richie and Carmy are constantly clashing is like saying Michael and Fredo Corleone had their differences.
- Lionel Boyce’s Marcus is a genial baker who is inspired by Carmy to strive for greatness, while Liza Colón-Zayas’ Tina is a veteran line cook who is highly skeptical of this young upstart Sydney.
The outstanding supporting ensemble also includes the invaluable Abby Elliott as Carmy’s sister Natalie, the classic middle child who has spent most of her adult life trying to keep the frayed family together, and real-life chef Matty Matheson in a hilarious turn as a perpetually upbeat all-around fix-it guy. Spoiler embargoes prevent me from naming some of the high-profile guest stars who are woven into the story; suffice to say these actors make an indelible impact, even if they’re around for just a pivotal scene or two.
With most episodes clocking in at around 30 minutes, save for the 20-minute, one-shot penultimate episode and the 47-minute Season One finale, “The Bear” moves at an almost exhausting pace. Carmy insists that everyone call each other “Chef” as a sign of respect, and the dialogue is peppered with restaurant-authentic terminology (“Behind!” “Corner!”) and rituals, e.g., the Brigade System (which dictates a certain, clearly defined hierarchy in the kitchen) and the “Family Meal” tradition in which the staff gathers around the table during an off-peak period and shares dishes and stories. (These scenes provide relief from the constant clashes among so many big personalities and make for some of the more touching moments on the series.)
Jeremy Allen White can hit hardcore dramatic beats with a Sean Penn-like ferocity, but he’s also adept at handling self-deprecating comedy. At first, Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s Richie comes across as a one-note, irritating jerk, but in later episodes Moss-Bachrach is given the chance to show Richie’s heart and vulnerability, and he does outstanding work. Ayo Edebiri might not yet be a household name, but she’s a star in the making and her Sydney is arguably the most empathetic and likable character in and out of the kitchen.
Every day at The Original Beef of Chicagoland brings a new development, a new setback, a new series of challenges for Carmy and his crew. We’re rooting for them to keep the lights on and to keep those sammiches coming. That’s the Chicago way.