‘The Bear’: The toxic cooking dramedy of the moment

Image courtesy of Sophia Kim ’24.

It is hard to be a television fan these days without hearing about “The Bear.” Season One premiered on Hulu in 2022 and quietly delivered a succinct yet potent rendering of the restaurant industry, while 2023’s Season Two exploded as a critical darling, expanding the scope and scale of its predecessor. Noted for its character-led storytelling, heart-rending performances and exceptional direction, “The Bear” has set a high watermark for recent television, emphasized by last month’s six-Emmy awards sweep. This attention begs the question: is the show as good as its hype? While “The Bear” stumbles in its second season, its best features are addictively singular, making it a must-watch show despite occasional uneven moments.

“The Bear” portrays brilliant Michelin-star chef Carmine “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), who returns to his childhood home city of Chicago to take over the family restaurant after his brother’s tragic death. That restaurant, The Original Beef of Chicagoland, looks like something out of Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares”—the staff are at each other’s throats, the place is in massive debt, and by the second episode, the restaurant gets a “C” grade from the Chicago Board of Health. Carmy’s efforts to turn the place around provoke animosity from the staff, principally down-and-out restaurant manager Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and line cook Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas). Enter young chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), overqualified and insecure, who signs on as sous-chef to follow Carmy’s nationally acclaimed status as a culinary star. Soon, Sydney is pushing Carmy to revamp the restaurant as a fine-dining experience, sparking kitchen conflict between the new upscale staff and existing humble cooks that dominate much of the series. 

According to Variety, the Season Two premiere of “The Bear” was the most popular of any FX show on Hulu, while Season One was the most watched FX show ever. What makes “The Bear” so popular is its adherence to the vogue of gritty realism, borrowing from real-life restaurant environments to create a chaotic and high-adrenaline atmosphere. Plots diverge from wide-scale storytelling to focus on the traumatic mundanities of restaurant ownership: ill-timed health inspections, crushing business debt, indifferent restaurant vendors and delivery people, toilets exploding, or just dull knives and over-boiling kettles. The fascination with the show also reflects America’s obsession with work culture. “The Bear” draws viewers into the world of work-obsessed Carmy, who practically lives in the restaurant for much of Season One both to optimize the restaurant’s efficiency and to keep his demons at bay. The show excels in portraying a toxic workplace, developing its characters by letting their personal struggles explode into verbal and physical conflict under the pressure cooker of working at The Beef. Moments of culture clash, distrust, and fear among its cast are usually responses to inner turbulence manifesting in workplace drama. 

Not least, there is the food itself. “The Bear” indulges in slow, minimally scored shots of beautiful dishes are the reward for seeing the food’s creation: chaotic blocking as chefs muscle over each other, cacophonies of cries and clanging silverware, frenetic cuts and zooms, and lightning-fast juliennes framed adjacent to near-diced fingers. Storer’s juxtaposition of gorgeously manicured foods and the fevered work culture required to produce them is a reminder that culinary creation in the restaurant world is a labor not just of love but of struggle and interpersonal conflict. 

Above all, “The Bear” rests on the strength of its performances. Allen White portrays a character who uses blinders to deal with the trauma in his life, and his combination of intensity and vulnerability is one of the best recent performances on television. A strong script and focused direction combine in the character Sydney; rather than depicting her inner conflict through dialogue, the show relies on the strength of Edebiri’s performance, showing just enough of Sydney’s tentative voice and body language to see her embroiled in an inner conflict of low self-esteem and swelling ambition. The restraint and maturity of these “show-don’t-tell” choices give the characters an unspoken interiority. 

Not all the choices the show makes are great, however. Notably, the show uses pop and rock music by acts like Refused, Neil Finn, Eddie Vedder and especially Chicago favorite Wilco as a framing device with mixed results. Occasionally, the use of music heightens the drama. The poignant use of the wistful Wilco track “Impossible Germany” at the end of Season One’s “Sheridan” is a graceful accompaniment to the episode’s look at the soul-draining sacrifices the characters make for the restaurant; “Sheridan” also features an especially clunky and on-the-nose use of The Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron (When He Walked Me Home)” set to a fight between Richie and restaurant repair person Fak. The over-reliance on pop songs only increases in Season Two, which sees nearly every change of scenery mechanically framed by music.

Equally, Season Two sees character arcs become noticeably less complex and mired in trite narrative devices. Season One utilized restrained, unconventional emotional progressions and stories to lend its characters a rawness and realistic gravity in their personal and interpersonal journeys. Season Two unravels this by defaulting to conventional television subplots in exploring its ensemble cast. Pastry chef Marcus balances his craft while attending to his mother in hospice care, line cooks Tina and Ibraham enroll in culinary school and face feelings of inadequacy, and Carmy deals with the introduction of a hamfisted love triangle—these are all tired plot lines, jarring when contrasted with Season One’s unique narrative approaches. Coupled with an unexpected expansion of scope (Marcus visits a bright and clean Copenhagen, and surprise guest stars Will Poulter and Olivia Colman appear in one-off side roles) and a decline in the show’s commitment to realism, the show feels like it has drifted from its original vision. While a good television show can (and probably should) evolve season over season, Season Two’s shift toward sterilized settings, quippier characters and a treacly tone feel hollow compared to the weight and realism of Season One’s world. 

Nonetheless, Season Two features a series of show-defining moments. “Sundae,” which follows Sydney touring Chicago’s gastronomical delights to gain inspiration for the restaurant, features the most satisfying and elegant food porn sequences in the show; meanwhile, “Forks” returns to Season One’s visceral character work with delightful progression in Richie’s narrative arc. The one-hour special “Fishes” is easily the show’s high point, bringing the hallucinatory kitchen nightmares of the restaurant industry to the family holiday table through pitch-perfect pacing and a cavalcade of increasingly ridiculous celebrity actor cameos. “Fishes” transcends the limitations of a television episode—it is an overblown televisual edifice that indulges in all of Season Two’s issues so thoroughly that it loops back into being subversive. 

Despite its sophomore missteps, “The Bear” is an exemplar in recent television, offsetting middling lows with stratospheric highs. With an onslaught of delectable performances, crisp direction and a (partial) mincing of stereotypical narratives, “The Bear” is at its worst palatable fare and its best searingly essential television.

One Comment

  1. Your “The Bear” review was spot on and very well written. I loved Season 1 and am working through Season 2 right now. The additional cast members and the second location (Denmark) changed the feel of the show to me, but I am not finished so I must reserve judgment.

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