People sitting on a grassy hill and looking at a city skyline

The Bear is a Breath of Fresh Air for TV

August 30, 2022

Note: this post contains spoilers for FXs “The Bear” season 1.

It was after watching two seasons of Succession that I finally realized it is a show where each and every character is evil and incapable of change. At first I rooted for Shiv. She seemed reasonable in those first couple of episodes! Then Gerri, Kendall, then even Roman for a bit. The show settled into a kind of rotation where each of the siblings has their turn to display a glimmer of likeability. The audience grasps onto these moments like a life raft; anything to avoid drowning in the cynicism! But then, gotcha! It was a ruse; the life raft is actually a lure, and you’re caught and pulled further down into the dark world of the Roys. This gridlock became frustrating after a while. I continued to watch Succession loyally of course, unable to abandon such an otherwise well-written show; but I wisened up and accepted that each of these characters is rotten to their scheming, power hungry cores; they will never see the light.

The Bear is a show about a kitchen and the staff who work in it. Carmy (Jeremy Allen White), gives up his career at a prestigious NYC restaurant after his brother dies suddenly and leaves the failing family restaurant to him. He returns to his hometown Chicago and tries to improve the restaurant while navigating financial insolvency and the employees who come with the place, some of whom are hostile to change.

Richie and Sydney in one of their many confrontations

Richie and Sydney in one of their many confrontations

The show feels very much like a product of the current moment. Mental health features prominently in the plot, with each main character getting time to show their struggles with anxiety, PTSD, and depression. The show is about cooking; and yes, they talk about salt, fat and acid. There is even a line about COVID-19 that doesn’t feel completely stilted, the first successful attempt I’ve seen in a show or movie since the pandemic. One thing that this show does not have, which sets it apart from a lot of the prestige TV made in the last ten years, is cynicism. Game of Thrones convinced us that human relationships are primarily about power, and shows haven’t given up that framing since. In the 2010s TV and movies followed the mantra of dark is realistic; if a show was to be taken seriously, to be seen as art, it could not be anything less than grim. House of Cards, Veep, Succession and more all contributed to this general malaise. While it might have been edgy and exciting at first, this outlook has become worn-in and tired.

The Bear is not light. It’s stressful; it allows for suffering and features characters in various states of mental unwell. But it is not cynical. People work together. They attempt (not always successfully) to support each other. Characters that are initially positioned as villains, Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas), display nuance early in the first season. Actually, the writers were a bit too eager to show us that there are no true villains at The Original Beef of Chicagoland. Richie gets his moment in episode two. He is a pain in the ass the whole episode, and while misogynistically degrading Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) – who is the only person trying to help him at this point – he receives a phone call in which he comforts his daughter who is having a bad day at school. The scene was hamfisted in my opinion; a little too obvious of a play. The other difficult character, Tina, gets the same treatment two episodes later. She changes from being completely antagonistic towards Carmy’s initiative to run the kitchen as a brigade de cuisine (particularly aiming her ire at the new sous-chef Sydney), to warming up to the new regime and treating Sydney with tenderness in the space of one episode. Watching it happen so quickly felt forced and I can’t help but feel that people don’t usually operate like this; that subplot could have marinated for another episode or two.

As the season progresses the show settles into its pacing. Each character is given time and development. The back-half of the season is absolutely masterful. Episode 6 begins with Jon Bernthal as Carmy’s deceased brother Mikey (yes, every character’s name ends with an -ey sound) in an engaging flashback sequence that gives us so much insight into his character in very little screen time. Mikey tells a captivating story of a night out in Chicago that ends at a bar at 6AM with Bill Murray. His audience, Richie, Carmy and Sugar (Carmy’s sister, played by Abby Elliott) are engaged; they laugh at the right times and contribute their quips as sunlight spills into the kitchen. They are all preparing food together. The scene then cuts directly to Richie telling this same story in the present day to a date in a dark restaurant, but the magic of the story is completely lost on her. The contrast in these two scenes is so well done and works on multiple levels: Richie’s relative lack of charisma compared to Mikey, but also his date’s recoiling at the story reflects a class gap between them; or is it temporal? Richie stands in for “old Chicago” often in this show; in fact, he sees his own role in the restaurant as being vanguard of a threatened and vanishing “working class”, his anachronism is self-aware.

Carmy and Marcus (Lionel Boyce)

Carmy and Marcus (Lionel Boyce)

Episode seven is absolutely masterful. I won’t say much about it here because it speaks for itself, but the 20-minute episode acts as a perfect climax to season 1. The season ends on a high note tonally in episode 8 as Carmy discovers that his deceased brother has been squirrelling away borrowed money in tomato cans, paying an aluminium company to seal wads of cash inside. This ending, though foreshadowed cleverly throughout the season, is a confusing deus ex machina that I can only hope is justified better in season 2.

The show has set itself up ambitiously with a cast and storyline that each feel like they have plenty of depth to explore. But I can also imagine a possible path this show could take where it ends up becoming popular but sitcom-adjacent. You might think this would be impossible for a show that so regularly depicts chaotic and stressful kitchen scenes, but it’s 2022 and that spiciness might be perfect for a new era of sitcom. Audiences might even come to expect these scenes as a comforting staple of the show, like Jim Halpert’s pranks in The Office. The way that the more antagonistic characters were quickly domesticated in season 1 leaves us with no real villains on the show, and the perplexing ending of season 1 seemingly resolves the financial stresses that provided so much of that season’s drama. This is fine, but I would not like to see The Bear become Ted Lasso with yelling. To stay interesting, shows need to have real conflict and tension. I am curious to see what avenues the writers choose to explore in season 2. Overall, this is my favourite new show in a long time. It feels different: smart, complex, but not needlessly dark. A breath of fresh air for television.

Stray observations: