“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
Generally, depending on the messenger, it’s a warning against high-pressure situations, either a threat or a kindness. Within the world of fine dining, it is a brutal reality that often excuses abusive behavior committed on behalf of offering the highest-quality food to hungry customers. Gordon Ramsey has built his TV reputation on shouting down aspiring chefs. Bradley Cooper tried to parlay the intensity into a failed Oscar bid with Burnt. It makes for great, absorbing, and unsettling drama.
The FX/Hulu series The Bear is the latest to tackle the popular cooking refrain. It follows Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White of Shameless fame) as he returns from being the world’s most promising young chef to run his family’s sandwich shop, The Original Beef. The previous owner, Carmy’s brother Michael (Jon Bernthal), died by suicide. Carmy hasn’t dealt with Michael’s death or the heaps of abuse he suffered working as a chef in New York. Instead, he channels his energy into transforming The Original Beef into a respectable establishment. He implements new, French-style working structures and language, despite hesitation from the shop’s close-knit and weary staff.
What’s immediately remarkable about The Bear is the rich definition of its characters, especially across eight episodes. (All but the season finale are roughly 30 minutes.) New hire Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) is a slightly awkward, dry-humored sous chef whose impatient ambitions overwhelm her. Marcus (Lionel Boyce) is a kind pastry chef who’s inspired to push past his expectations of himself. Long-time chef Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) is skeptical of Carmy and Sydney, calling them “Jeff” instead of “Chef.” Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) fears that Carmy’s attempts at change will rob the restaurant, and the community, of its blue-collar appeal.
Creator Christopher Storrer and his team perfectly balance the characters and plot with some of the year’s best direction and editing. The Bear is vacuum-sealed tight, with no extra inch wasted on needless exposition or repeated character beats. There’s room for absurd hilarity, overwhelming intensity, and little else. The series moves at a bustling, blistering pace as if it were a ramshackle sandwich joint in Chicago. One moment, two characters could be talking about changing neighborhoods and lost innocence. Then, two gunshots ring out and leave bullet holes in the window. The tension is jarring but exhilarating, keeping you on tenterhooks as you wait for a stove to catch fire. It’s sometimes played for laughs, other times as a chest-thumping jolt of intense drama. Whatever the intention, it always works.
The Bear’s top-notch direction lets its story of redemption, recovery, and reconnection strike deep at your core. Returning to The Original Beef, Carmy seeks resolution for years of unresolved pain. He wants to reconnect with Michael, even though he avoids his sister Sugar to avoid discussing their shared loss. Carmy wants to prove that he isn’t a bundle of unrealized potential, that he can turn The Original Beef into a top-notch experience. That’s difficult when memories of Joel McHale’s Executive Chef, stripping you bare with humiliating words, leave you spaced out in front of kitchen fires. The Bear is brutal in depicting Carmy’s physical manifestations of his trauma, cutting in hallucinations and past verbal abuse that disrupts his reality, leaving him and us reeling.
What’s most affecting about The Bear’s exploration of trauma and toxicity is the revelation of their cyclical natures. Toxicity breeds toxicity. One person spews abuse at someone, and the victim spreads it until it infects everyone. That dynamic is present throughout, shaping our understanding of the characters. In the seventh episode, “Review,” the building tension explodes in a bravura, one-take sequence depicting a morning of pure hellfire that sears everyone. It’s a jaw-dropping episode where everyone falls victim to a cavalcade of bad choices, unforeseen circumstances, and hurtful actions that reflect their worse impulses. Everything – the direction, the cinematography, the writing, and the acting – combine into one of the best television episodes you’ll see this year.
Jeremy Allen White is a revelation in every episode of The Bear. (I have yet to see him in Shameless, to the disgust and horror of my friends.) As Carmy, he is a raw and exposed nerve, wavering between the supportive warmth he needed and the viciousness he suffered. He doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, but his astonishingly blue eyes reveal a troubled man desperately trying to be and do better. White is more than just Pacino-esque intensity. He’s funny, with a straight-man approach to the chaos engulfing him daily. Seeing him watch in dumbfounded wonder is worth the price of a Hulu subscription alone.
The rest of The Bear’s cast is equally great, elevating the already-strong material given to them. Ayo Edebiri is intensely relatable in her confusion at The Original Beef’s insanity. Her ability to be cruel, though, in response to the abuse she sometimes suffers, makes her riveting. Richie could easily be a comic relief valve, but Ebon Moss-Bachrach imbues him with enough pathos to make him compelling. Colón-Zayas is hilarious as Tina, always with a sharp retort or dismissive look, but her inner warmth makes her the show’s hardened but beating heart.
The Bear is not the first or last show to offer a behind-the-scenes look at the damning experience of restaurant work. However, it may be the best, especially in its blend of tones and realities with more dimensions than its peers. Given the bloated and confused runtimes across the television landscape, it is incredible that The Bear packs so much in such a tight package. It’s a perfect plate: delicious, unexpected, and leaving you wanting more. (Thankfully, FX and Hulu gave it a second season.)