The fast-paced, high-energy experience of working in a restaurant kitchen is searing and challenged in FX/Hulu’s new series “The Bear.” Created, written and mostly directed by Christopher Storer (“Ramy,” “Eighth Grade”), “The Bear” follows Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), as he returns home to Chicago from his stent in New York working as a chef at of the best restaurants in the world following his brother Michael’s suicide which leaves him to deal with the fallout of Michaels failing restaurant, “The Beef.” Carmy struggles to deal with his brother’s death, keep the business running, and acknowledge his inner demons and anxieties that sometimes appear to him as a grizzly bear or a grease fire in his dreams. In an attempt to shove his inner turmoil and traumas down, he puts his all into The Beef. He and the rest of the employees, most from before Carmy’s time there, navigate bringing Carmy’s more sophisticated kitchen styles into the seemingly run-down establishment.
The first episode is 25 minutes of high-energy yelling, with a shaky handheld camera that stays close to its subject. The series, and especially the first episode, feels nostalgic and reminiscent of 70s filmmaking with quick zooms, grainy city footage and constant recurring cuts of kitchen prep b-roll. As the series progresses, the energy and stakes stay heightened but take its time to unpack the characters. Much like working a real restaurant job, the show tracks the shift from a flailing start, where you struggle to keep up, have too many questions and strive to impress, but as time goes on, you get in the flow of things, befriend your co-workers, and next thing you know you are sharing your darkest secrets while chopping onions. By the third episode, the yelling is not as constant and the proceeding episodes remain fast-paced and concise all throughout. The stakes continue to feel high, not only with the need to keep the struggling business alive but also to keep each other alive and afloat. With everything from a failed health inspection, an accidental kitchen stabbing, a violent bachelor party and more “The Bear” captures what can go wrong in an environment where problems are not addressed but left to boil over.
Mental health and addiction are the catalysts behind the fires and bear that come in Carmy’s dreams. Much like the constant ticking kitchen clock Carmy keeps a close eye on before opening, it seems to also be a representation of the ticking time bomb for Carmy himself as it is only a matter of time before all of the trauma, catches up with him and he explodes. Michael was an addict and his addiction is part of what led to his death. Carmy’s sister Natalie or “Sugar”, who some viewers might consider a nuisance, is the only outside force from the restaurant that tries to give Carmy a reality check and encourages him to take care of himself and address what he’s been through, not just shove it down and divert with cooking like he has so many times before.
For Jeremy Allen White, the role of Carmy does not stray far from what he’s previously done, but that does not diminish the power of his performance. Most well known for his 11 years as Lip Gallagher on Showtime’s “Shameless,” White played it safe with his first acting gig departing from the show. Sticking to what he knows with a rough-around-the-edges Chicago native who has hard-core family issues is the character blueprint for both Lip and Carmen. However, while White does not stretch his range, he again delivers a complex, emotionally rich acting performance so you aren’t mad that it’s not something completely new or different. As an actor, White is able to bring something new and interesting to moments as simple as screaming “Fuck off” in a kitchen to the challenging moments of realization for who and what his brother truly was.
The rest of the cast stands right alongside him in terms of their performances and bringing authenticity to the show. The sous-chef and the one trying to bring something new to the restaurant is Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) Carmy’s fresh hire who struggles to earn the respect of the others and to keep everyone on task. Edebiri has excellent comedic timing that balances with the more intense moments her character undergoes. Carmy’s “cousin, Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), Michael’s best friend he ran the restaurant with before he passed, is the headstrong instigator of the bunch, stuck in his old ways with secrets to follow. The entire ensemble fills out the character-driven nature of the series by also feeling fleshed out and like real people with history, lives, hopes and dreams.
The only issue with the show really seems to be that sticking to 25-minute episodes for all but the finale, leaving viewers left wanting more. I want to get to know each member of the kitchen; I want to go home with them, and really learn about who they are. But, considering we don’t even learn much about the leading protagonist until a confessional monologue given during an al-anon meeting in the eighth and final episode of the season, this complaint is not that severe.
The good news is that it was just announced that “The Bear” has been renewed by FX for a second season! Hopefully, the second season will provide more answers to all of the unanswered questions this season had and dive deeper into the other characters.
“The Bear” is currently streaming on Hulu.