TV: The Bear (Season 1)

Amidst rumblings that the era of Peak TV may soon be on its way out (as streaming services scale back the spend-first, ask-questions-later approach to populating their platforms), it might be a ripe moment to savor the special, niche shows that this time of plenty has facilitated. The Bear is a perfect example: an intense, focused, very specific comedy-drama that likely wouldn’t have flourished in the old days of network ad buys and syndication. Perfectly clocked at just eight half-hour segments, The Bear pairs first-rate actors with smart, powerful writing and sets it in a pressure-cooker environment, delivering a singular blend of humor, fury, and heart.

Jeremy Allen White stars as Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, who abandons a hard-earned reputation as a master chef at one of the world’s most prestigious restaurants when his brother commits suicide, leaving him the family restaurant. The Original Beef of Chicagoland isn’t exactly Carmy’s wheelhouse fare—sandwiches and fries, basically—but he nonetheless finds himself at the center of its chaotic, disorganized kitchen, trying to save the business. Carmy’s new leadership disrupts the staff dynamic, however. In particular, he locks horns with throwback cousin Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who symbolizes the old ways and galvanizes resistance to change. Meanwhile, Carmy’s new protege—an ambitious young chef named Sydney (Ayo Edebiri)—joins the staff to learn at Carmy’s side, becoming a controversial catalyst for the restaurant’s transformation.

The Bear doesn’t lend itself to a pithy elevator pitch, but it’s an exceptional show that mindfully, efficiently deploys the tools at its disposal to tell a memorable story. One could start by describing it as a workplace dramedy, capitalizing on the chemistry of its unconventional troupe. White brings a restrained, unique presence to his tortured protagonist, while Moss-Bacharach and Edebiri deliver star-making turns as key foils in his struggle. Lionel Boyce and Liza Colón-Zayas also shine in key supporting roles. The Bear’s created family—another selling-point ingredient, perhaps—is definitely on the dysfunctional side, but eventually develops a winning vibe. While the dramatic workplace conflicts sometimes escalate too explosively, the show clearly understands the high-stress, low-pay environment at its center, and depicts it with empathetic insight.

But The Bear isn’t just an acting showcase or an ensemble piece. It has things to say, and says them artfully. The suicide of Carmy’s brother Michael (played memorably in flashback by Jon Bernthal, a slick casting choice) hangs over the scenario like a cloud, fueling both its clashes and its dark humor. This makes it a show about grief—specifically, in the case of Michael’s family, but also generally, given the prevalence of grief informing its backdrop: post-pandemic grief, the woes of late-stage capitalism, the death of the American dream. In a time of collective trauma, The Bear knows its audience. It’s also a show that tackles male emotional fragility, particularly in the combative relationship between Carmy and Richie, whose repressed mourning of Michael exposes their unhealthy coping mechanisms. But it’s also a show about passion, perhaps its most uplifting and marketable commodity. Especially in Carmy, Sydney, and Marcus (Boyce’s character), the love of food and cooking translates gloriously to the screen. In the midst of the staff’s stressful daily chaos, moments of grace come from their pursuit of excellence: improving their dishes, helping each other learn, and raising their game personally. Despite the frequent frustrations of their jobs, their efforts in the kitchen—filmed in tight close-up, giving the work importance and immediacy—are often the saving grace that gets them through the day.

All this said, it’s still difficult to truly explain The Bear’s particularly emotional vibe. It movingly puts its finger on the pulse of dark times, while simultaneously doing its part to relieve that darkness. The result is a marvelous, magical little show, genuine and beautiful.

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