‘The Bear’ Is the Most Stressful Thing on TV Right Now. It’s Also Great
This post contains spoilers for the first season of FX’s The Bear, now streaming in its entirety on Hulu.
The first time I attempted to watch The Bear, I made it about 10 minutes into the third episode before needing a break. The show, set in a busy Chicago sandwich shop, was doing almost too good a job at creating atmosphere. Watching it felt like being stuck in that kitchen with the cooks as equipment broke, tempers clashed, and no amount of time ever seemed enough to make sure all the food was ready for the arrival of hungry customers. It was too intense, too uncomfortable, too raw.
The scene that inspired my break was actually more mild than many that had preceded it. The show’s main character Carmy (Jeremy Allen White), a James Beard Award-winning chef who has come home to save the family business after the death by suicide of his brother Michael (played in flashbacks by Jon Bernthal), is barely even in it. Instead, after spending two episodes clashing with the kitchen staff — and particularly with Michael’s stubborn, obnoxious best friend, “cousin” Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) — over trying to run things the way they do in Michelin star restaurants versus Michael’s haphazard “system,” Carmy decides to make a more formal change. He promotes ambitious new hire Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) to sous-chef, and 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 others are confused, and Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) is so annoyed with all these attempts to change the place that she briefly pretends she doesn’t speak English. Midway through the scene, Carmy runs out to attend to other problems, leaving an overwhelmed Sydney to institute changes the restaurant clearly isn’t ready for. By this point, I could practically smell Richie’s cigarette breath, was developing a sympathetic stress migraine to go along with the pain Sydney was feeling, and worried I was on the verge of a heart attack like one of the SNL Superfans who would refer to this show as Da… Bear! At that moment, I closed my eyes, imagined what the next few hours of my life would be like if I kept watching, and decided that there was only so much fictional stress I could handle in addition to the very real kind emanating from the current state of the world. I turned off the screener and did not expect to return to The Original Beef of Chicagloand.
But whatever beef I had with how The Bear made me feel, it was hard to let go of the fact that it had made me feel, and deeply. In an era of just-good-enough scripted television, filled with shows that have all the ingredients but not the artistry to make the recipe work, here was a show — created by Ramy vet Christopher Storer, and alternately directed by him and Joanna Calo — that instantly had a sense of place, had clear conflicts and character arcs, and did not seem to be following any particular Peak TV playbook. (Carmy, for instance, is a damaged genius, but that largely presents itself as him being closed-off, rather than acting like a charismatic asshole; it’s genuinely shocking when, later in the season, he loses his temper on a bad day and berates Marcus and Sydney until each walks out of the kitchen.) There was something there that kept lurking in the back of my mind until I finally couldn’t resist going back.
And just as Sydney promised the staff that the French brigade would lead to huge improvements once they got used to it, my return to The Bear soon got me past the worst of the “Why am I watching this?” qualms. (Well, at least until the seventh episode, which we will talk about.) And I thrilled to the way Storer, Calo, and company had crafted what has turned out to be the show of the summer so far.
As many did, I first encountered Jeremy Allen White on Shameless, where he played another wounded Chicago prodigy. There was a powerful stillness to his performance even when he was just barely into his twenties; he was perhaps the main reason I stuck with that show as long as I did, well after it had clearly lost the thread on White’s Lip Gallagher and virtually every other character. The role of Carmy — a shy creative spirit who never seems comfortable anywhere, who is afraid to talk to his sister Sugar (Abby Elliott) about their mutual grief regarding Michael, who seems to constantly wonder why he gave up a job running the best restaurant in the world (at least according to Eater, we’re told) — plays to all of his strengths.
It’s a great performance, but one surrounded by many others just as strong. Ebon Moss-Bachrach leans way into how Richie has built his entire persona around being a jerk, all but inviting people to argue with him at every turn. But he also is able to convey the self-awareness of the cost of being a professional jerk, as well as Richie’s obvious love of Michael (and how that complicates his desire to chase off Michael’s interloper kid brother), and the genuine hurt he feels that he’s being left behind by changes to the Beef — and the neighborhood surrounding it. Ayo Edebiri is as responsible as White for creating that initial sense of anxiety and fear every time something in the kitchen goes awry, and Sydney’s struggle to balance her dreams with her ability to execute them becomes just as engaging a character arc as Carmy’s attempt to make peace with Michael’s addiction and death.
In many ways, though, the most important journeys belong to Tina and Marcus. She wants no part of her new boss at first, puzzled by his use of restaurant lingo like calling everyone “Chef.” (She initially assumes he is saying “Jeff,” then keeps calling him that as a nickname.) Marcus, meanwhile, is all-in from the start, inspired to make chocolate cakes and donuts rather than simply work on sandwich bread. Over the course of the season, we see Tina become enraptured by the food Carmy is making, and go along with all the changes he’s instituting. Selling any fictional character as a master of their craft is hard enough, and even more when their craft is something the viewer cannot taste or smell themselves. So Liza Colón-Zayas’s performance is crucial to translating Carmy’s gifts for the audience, and as a proxy for the gradual transformation of the restaurant. Marcus, like Sydney, illustrates the dangers of trying to change too much, too fast, as he becomes more obsessed with perfecting his new creations than with the basic task of making sure each day’s baked goods are ready.
All these characters and more contribute to the sense of a very real and lived-in workplace, and that’s as appealing in and of itself as the performances are. There’s long been a public appetite for watching people navigating interpersonal challenges and doing other problem-solving at work, whether it’s in a reality show format (even Steven Soderbergh loves Below Deck) or a scripted show like this. Process is endlessly interesting when presented in as clear a fashion as The Bear does it, and it’s obvious that the authenticity of the Beef has been as big a draw as White or anyone else in the cast.
There is also the fact that this was a rare binge release from whatever we are supposed to call the FX/Hulu partnership now. In general, it seems like weekly or hybrid releases tend to spark more engagement and conversation these days, outside a handful of big hits like Stranger Things. But The Bear likely would have gotten lost if the only initial sample for viewers was that deliberately chaotic first episode, rather than being offered the chance to let the Hulu interface keep playing chapter after chapter as things began to calm down.
And things really do calm down. Carmy and Richie even enjoy catering a party for his uncle, Cicero (Oliver Platt), who wants to take over the Beef to resolve the $300,000 loan debt Michael hadn’t repaid before killing himself. Tina and most of the other chefs master the ins and outs of the new system and new menu items, and they even stop badgering Carmy to go back to serving the spaghetti with canned tomatoes that was a staple under Michael. And Carmy finally accedes to Sugar’s suggestion that he attend Al-Anon meetings, and begins to sort through his feelings about his late brother.
But this is not the kind of show where things can ever go too well, which leads into the technically and emotionally brilliant seventh episode, “Review” where Sydney’s initiative to allow customers to order takeout online backfires when it launches on the same day as the restaurant gets a rave review, overwhelming the staff with far more demand than they can satisfy. Storer’s direction presents the meltdown as if it was shot in a single take, moving through every corner of the kitchen as Sydney’s initial screw-up (not limiting when and how much people can order through the new system) keeps compounding until everyone is angry and miserable. It is far more panic-inducing than anything to come in the first few episodes, but the difference is that by now, The Bear has made us invested in Carmy, Sydney, Marcus, and all the others. The episode is still a two-ton stress bomb, but now one with people to root for and conflicts we have grown to care deeply about. It’s incredible.
After how ugly things get in “Review,” it’s hard to blame Storer and Calo for wanting to end things on a happy note in the season finale, “Braciole.” Carmy discovers that Michael was not spending Cicero’s loan money on himself, but hiding the cash away in all those tomato cans Carmy was so reluctant to open up. He invites the staff to a celebratory meal (“family,” one of many restaurant terms the show casually incepts into its audience’s minds), and prepares to close down the Beef for good and relaunch it as something more along the lines of what he and Sydney want to do, with a new, even more Chicago-friendly name: The Bear(*).
(*) [Extremely fake Ron Howard voice] Hey, that’s the name of the show!
On the one hand, this happy ending — and setup for a second season — feels pretty jury-rigged. Why was Michael hiding the money in the tomato cans? (For that matter, how was he hiding the money in sealed tomato cans?) Won’t Carmy just have to pay back his uncle rather than invest all this cash turning Beef into Bear? And yet that family meal — among the kind of surrogate family every ensemble show like this strives to create, but that only some manage to do — feels like exactly what Carmy, Sydney, the rest of the chefs, and those of us in the audience needed. The brief glimpse of Michael looking over his shoulder and smiling, as if he can somehow witness what he left behind for Carmy and the others, couldn’t be lovelier. (Jon Bernthal is rightly one of the busiest actors we have, and this show gets every ounce of value it can out of his brief presence.)
I do not regret excusing myself from the establishment after two and a half episodes. But it was so rewarding to come back and find that The Bear had a lot more on its menu than tension and sweat.