FX’s surprise hit of the summer streaming on Hulu, “The Bear,” is a show about an elite chef Carmen Berzatto leaving his position at the greatest restaurants in New York City to take over his recently deceased brother’s sandwich shop in Chicago. What sounds like could easily be a turgid drama, a woke morality play on diversity, or a forgettable British comedy, is actually a combination of the best parts of all three of those overdone genres.
There is drama, but it is not intense confrontations between characters punctuated with quiet scenes of each of them crying and staring intensely at the horizon. Nor is it racked with grief and stress and finding unhealthy ways to cope.
There is diversity, but it is not a morality tale about what the white male protagonist learns from his non-white staff and young black female sous-chef.
There is comedy, but it is not the kind in which each episode follows the same formula: the restaurant’s in danger of going bankrupt or up in flames, the chef and his crew would get their act together, and with a little luck and a lot of grace are able to make it another day.
And yet, “The Bear” manages to combine these ideas while filtering out the less desirable elements. It alternates with both drama and comedy, giving the story a more realistic feel and more developed characters. It also manages to incorporate diversity without descending into tokenism or woke virtue signaling. And this restraint and originality allow it to be a great show with great writing, great performances, and great themes.
At the top of the show’s virtues is its writing. It maintains a good pace and allows for more well-rounded characters. Each episode has a clear plot arc along with the whole season. All the characters grow in some way, and more is gradually revealed about their circumstances. Nothing feels superfluous or rushed. The dialogues and monologues are authentic, informative, and often funny.
Additionally, the attention to detail is impressive. It’s evident that the show’s writers consulted with actual chefs to recreate the hectic environment of a restaurant kitchen. The setting is often grimy, cramped, and hot while the actors are well choreographed to convey the ordered chaos of a restaurant staff. And, in the style of a good cooking show, there’s the periodic satisfaction of watching a beautiful dish emerging from the pandemonium to be plated and tasted.
Of course, all this would come to nothing if it weren’t for the amazing performances of the cast, particularly Jeremy Allen White playing Carmen and Ebon Moss-Bachrach playing his cousin Richie. White is intense yet restrained, internalizing so much of the challenges confronting him. By contrast, his cousin Moss-Bachrach is an abrasive loudmouth who offends everyone but also has some funny lines and deeper struggles that make him more likable. Together, the two characters have great chemistry and form a hilarious core to the whole show.
“The Bear” depicts the many pressures facing today’s workers in general, and today’s men in particular. Although many stories have been told about various addictions, the show distinguishes itself in exploring the addiction to work and the desperate effort of men to prove their worth. All the male leads — Carmen, Richie, and Marcus (the dessert chef played by Lionel Boyce) — are seen hustling and seeking some kind of honor in an indifferent modern world. This helps them cope with their personal problems, but it also tends to alienate them from friends and family.
With all this said, “The Bear” is not without its flaws. One of these flaws is the sous-chef character Sydney Amaru played by Ayo Edebiri who tends to stick out like a sore thumb. Part of this is due to how her character is written (a young ambitious chef who takes on the job of running the kitchen, but experiences few obstacles and evidently has little to learn from anyone), and part of it is due to Edebiri’s severe limits as an actress (whose expression and delivery of lines ranges from uncomfortable to frustrated).
Sydney is supposed to be a millennial girl-boss whose main challenge is dealing with idiots and bullies, but this is neither believable nor fitting for the show. Instead of being a humble young apprentice who learns the ropes and only takes control after paying her dues, she comes off as a whiney, entitled know-it-all who’s owed respect and admiration for simply being there. Fortunately, she’s rarely the focus of the show, and her character finally does make a mistake and experiences a little growth towards the end of the season, which redeems her somewhat.
The other flaw, though much more minor, is the underuse of the setting. The show takes place in Chicago, a city with its own culture and history, but there are only a few superficial references to this. Aside from a few shots of the skyline and the L, a couple of references to the Chicago Cubs and Bulls, and the (admittedly awesome) song “Chicago” by Sufjan Stevens, the story could have taken place in any big diverse city.
Given these flaws, all that really means is that the show has a few areas to address in a second season. Already, this first season has done an amazing job laying the foundation for what could be a great series about a man taking ownership of his life and using his talents and energy to build up his business and community. Much like the young men and women they are meant to represent, Carmen and his crew are still relatively young, energized, and filled with potential.