On Thursday, all eight episodes of the comedy-drama series The Bear will drop on FX.
And it? Is fantastic.
Smart, funny, raw, tense, warm but not sentimental and, most of all, real. Mark your calendars, clear your schedule. Trust me on this. I see a lot of TV for this job, and I don’t find myself feeling the way I feel about this show terribly often. I can think of only a handful in the past few years that have hit me this hard, have made me want to shout about them from my virtual rooftop: hacks. Severance. Girls5evah. Ramy. We Are Lady Parts.
And now: The Bear.
The premise: Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) is a young wunderkind chef at one of the world’s finest restaurants. But when his brother (Not Gonna Tell You The Actor, It’s A Surprise) dies by suicide and leaves the family’s greasy-spoon sandwich joint in Chicago’s River North neighborhood to him, he dutifully returns to run it. He’s grieving, and clashing with his sister (Abby Elliott) and with the restaurant’s staff, which includes his brother’s abrasive best friend Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach).
When Carmy hires a Culinary Institute of America-trained sous chef (Ayo Edebiri) to help him run the place, the staff resents them both and resists the changes the two attempt to bring to raise the level of the place’s food.
Sound wacky? Zanny? A classic fish-out-water sitcom? It’s anything but, happily.
What The Bear is, more than anything, is naturalistic, grounded; I’ll say it again: real. Oh sure, there are stylized touches of the surreal, in the form of dreams, panic-attack visions, etc. It’s Prestige TV in 2022, baby; that stuff comes with the territory.
But mostly, the series captures life on the line in a restaurant kitchen – the urgency, the tension, the heightened emotions, the raised voices. It is by no means a chill hang of a viewing experience – one late-in-the-season episode consists of what seems to be a single take, the camera weaving restlessly through the various kitchen stations as orders pile up and everyone starts to turn on each other.
Creator/showrunner Chris Storer, who writes and directs several episodes, also directed the series Ramy. He’s likely the chief reason that whenever any two characters talk on this show, they never seem like characters exchanging dialogue – they are just two people, talking. They reach for words. They talk over each other, not each other. They don’t approach every conversation as a means to deliver arch observations or to describe how they’re feeling.
Especially Carmy – he’s closed off, even sullen. White does such a good job of depicting how miserable he is, in fact, that we can’t help but wonder why he stays. (We do get an answer, eventually, and it’s a solid one.)
If you’re worried that The Bear represents yet another example of a show that revolves around a troubled genius – a man who treats everyone like crap but it’s okay because he’s great at what he does – rest assured that while Carmy may be a genius, he strives always to treat those around him respectfully. Even those who don’t deserve it, like Moss-Bachrach’s obnoxious, swaggering Richie, a performance that is as outwardly directed as White’s is inwardly directed.
But the thing that made me lock into the show is Edebiri’s performance as Sydney, the ambitious sous chef with big ideas and the ability to see through Richie’s abusive demeanor. She’s just so good here, confident and assured enough to weather the staff’s distrust even as she works to win them over.
I rooted for every character, in turn. Even Richie, eventually. So much so that when the series provided moments for Carmy to open up about what he’s going through, I admired the craft behind them – the writing, and White’s searing, palpable performance – but I also felt I didn’t need them. I got it already. You will, too.
Ditto a turn in the final episode that ties a too-tidy bow on this place, these characters. Satisfying? Safe. And you can’t say the seeds for it hadn’t been carefully planted. But where the best endings manage to feel both surprising and inevitable, this one’s just surprising.
Still: Those are quibbles. (Here’s another: When you hire Abby Elliott like this series did, you should use Abby Elliott more than this series does.) The Bear is a show that’s generous to both its characters and to its audience. It’s funny but never jokey, moving but never maudlin.
It’s a show that knows exactly what it’s doing, and does it exceedingly well. Watch it, and thank me. Not necessarily in that order.
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