The Bear – This immersive and stressful drama is one of the year’s best

by | Oct 3, 2022 | All, Reviews

It’s rare that a TV show feels completely immersive. It’s rare that a TV drama can plunge us into a world and not explain how it all works but that’s exactly what makes The Bear (all available on Disney+) So special.

Set in a  family restaurant in Chicago, the first episode plunges you into the heat and noise of the bustling kitchen without stopping to explain the jargon, or the constant bellows of ‘Behind’, ‘Hands’ and ‘Corner’

The show, created by Christopher Storer, focuses on Carmen ‘Carmy’ Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) a renowned Chef who had been working in one of the best restaurants in the world when his older brother Michael shot himself in the head and left the family sandwich shop to him. Struggling with grief and his own personal demons, Carmy tries and succeeds in changing things at ‘The Beef of Chicagoland’ a beloved local Sandwich shop with a great reputation despite the neighbourhood it’s in.

He’s thrown an extra lifeline when Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) a young and ambitious chef brings him her impressive CV. Her desire to work there stems from the fact that it was her dad’s very place to eat. Sydney instantly admires Carmy with his ambitions for the place and the expectations of his staff, the majority of whom worked under his disorganised and drug-addicted brother Michael (Jon Bernthal). Carmy is still scarred. His work/life balance is nonexistent. His life as a chef has taken its toll, he’s barely sleeping and he feels as if he’s drowning just trying to fathom out Michael’s chaotic way of working and his sporadic filing system.

It’s an intense watch that expects the viewer to keep up. It doesn’t feel like you’re watching television, it feels as if you’re planted in the kitchen. It’s raw, uncomfortable and utterly engrossing. It’s a show that doesn’t rely a lot on dialogue, but more on facial expressions, cooking and struggling to have your voice heard when everyone around you is shouting and swearing. Jermey Allen White is mesermising as Carmy. His anguish visible from the first moment we meet him. He wants to use his knowledge to inspire his new staff and make his late brother proud. He starts by referring to everyone as ‘chef’ even if firey cook Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) mishears him and calls him ‘Jeff’ throughout. The constant screams of ‘Hands’ (hands to take the plates out to the diners) ‘Behind’ (someone coming up behind you while you’re working) or ‘Corner’ (someone coming around the corner carrying something hot) are also things he implements in a hope that the kitchen will run smoother. The show never explains to you what these culinary terms mean, but you learn them over the course of its eight episodes as if you were learning a new language.

Most are receptive to Carmy’s changes except for foul-mouthed ‘cousin’ Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). You learn slowly that Richie isn’t a cousin but Michael’s best friend who sees the restaurant as a ‘delicate eco-system’ not to be f**ed around with.’ He doesn’t take kindly to Sydney being promoted to sous-chef, especially when Carmy tells her to institute a French-brigade hierarchy of the kind she and Carmy are used to from their work in fancier restaurants. Sydney promises that after a rough adjustment, this will make everything run much more smoothly. Some members of the staff are intrigued by the idea — particularly baker Marcus (Lionel Boyce), whose imagination has been ignited by Carmy’s arrival but the others take time to warm up to the idea and it’s a role that Sydney isn’t entirely ready for. She clashes instantly with Tina who sees Carmy’s new young protoge as someone who is above her station.

They initially tease Sydney. They watch her chop onions and hide them when her back is turned. Tina turns up the heat on one of her simmering pots so it burns and says nothing, when Carmy blames her, for not paying attention to her station. These exchanges culminate in a scene where an harrased, stressed and fed-up Sydney tries to reach for a heavy tub of sauce from the top shelf of a storage freezer. She declines help from Marcus insisting she’s capable on her own. She stands on her tip-toes and grips the top of the tub with her fingernails before it all comes crashing down spilling all over the floor. I’m not an adept enough writer to fully explain the instentiy of that moment. The stress, the heat, the panic and the will for things to go right. The show is full of moments like that. Tiny, deeply stressful moments are amplified by the opressive and time-pressured environment these characters are working in. When Marcus helps Sydney clean up the mess he’s not doing it out of pity or embarrassment, he’s doing it because he knows they are a team.

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Showrunner Christopher Storer, who also directs a handful of key episodes, is skilled at making you feel as claustraphobic and hot as the characters do. His camera pays attention to every cut of meat, every sizzling pan and every plate of food. The soundtrack, handpicked by Storer, is diverse. Tracks from Genesis, The Beach Boys, John Mayer and Sufjan Stevens punjuate important scenes.

The Bear is doing so many things at once and it does them all perfectly. It’s a drama about family, food, hard work, grief and coping with loss. It takes until the eighth episode (the longest of the series at just over 47mins) for Carmy to finally open up to an addict’s support group about what his brother meant to him. He resented him for not letting him work alongside him at the family’s restaurant and so to show him how good he was (and to stick two fingers up at him) he’d work his way through the ranks and land a job at the most prestigous resturant in the country. He did that and got sucked in, that he and his brother hadn’t spoken in years and in truth, it felt like a final f**k you from beyond the grave when he discovered he’d been left the restaurant in the will.

Jeremy Allen White delivers one of the performances of the year. Carmy is a shy creative spirit who never seems comfortable anywhere, he can’t even open up to his sister Sugar (Abby Elliott) about their mutual grief regarding Michael and White handles the torment brilliantly. Carmy might not realise it, but he’s a natural leader and it’s easy to see why everyone around him is inspired to better themselves.

Ayo Edebiri is wonderful as the ambitious Sydney. Over the course of the series, she grows in confidence, unaffraid to call out Richie when he’s being misogynistic and offensive and desperately hoping Carmy will approve of one of her new dishes. She sees the potential they have in growing the reputation of the place. It’s also nice to see the bond and respect that develops between Sydney and Tina who had initially written her off and pretended she didn’t speak English so to avoid any conversation. Edebri’s performance is note-perfect. Sydney is gentle but can be forceful and opinionated when the moment requires her to be. She’s capable, brave and in awe of Carmy. It’s a mesaured performance that feels naturalistic and lived in.

FX’s THE BEAR “Review” Episode 7 Pictured: (l-r) Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Richard ‘Richie’ Jerimovich, Ayo Edebiri as Sydney Adamu. CR: FX

It would be easy to dismiss Richie, the loudmouth, troublemaker who is just hanging around out of habit rather than any real loyalty to the family but Ebon Moss-Bachrach humanises him the more we learn. He’s a jerk who appears to enjoy getting a rise out of people. His arguments with Sydney in the seventh episode of the series are particularly brutal but you can also see and feel the genuine hurt he feels that he’s being left behind by changes to the Beef — and the neighbourhood surrounding it. He feels responsible for Michael’s death because he should have seen the signs and said something, but sometimes it’s just not that easy.

In many ways, though, the most important journeys belong to Tina and Marcus. At the start of the series, Tina is puzzled by his use of restaurant jargon and doesn’t buy into his ambitions. Marcus, on the other hand, is all-in from the start, inspired to make chocolate cakes and doughnuts which distracts him from his actual job of preparing the bread. Slowly, Tina becomes caught up in the food Carmy is making and falls in line with all the new rules and regulations of the kitchen she’s worked in since before Sydney was born.

It’s also crucial to say that a key part of the show is the food. This show will make you nervous, properly anxious, possibly tearful and very very hungry. The cast, none of whom were trained chefs worked alongside professionals to get the look and feel right and you don’t doubt for a second that these people are producing the mouth-watering food they do.

The world of The Beef and the wider world of The Bear feels so lived in you can smell the food cooking and imagine the heat in the kitchen. This has more in common with documentary than it does with television drama. It feels expertly directed and choreographed that you don’t feel like you’re watching actors but real people at work struggling to make their work a success.

The Bear (which was universally praised when it landed as a full season in June on Hulu in the US) is an utter masterpiece. A show that feels like its own thing. One deeply personal about the importance of your own family but also of aqquired family who has your back and makes you a better person. A second season was swiftly announced when the rave reviews came flooding in, and without spoiling anything, the eighth episode sets that up well. In an age where TV can still feel like it’s not trying hard enough to deliver something different, The Bear is that rare beast of immersive and visercal TV drama and I can’t wait to be back in the stressful environment again.

              The Bear is now available on Disney+

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles

03/10/2022

Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!

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