The existence of “Feed the Beast” is hard to justify at any time, but in an age in which fans of scripted TV have hundreds of choices available, this drama — a flavorless concoction about the opening of a restaurant — seems especially superfluous. Its attempts to explore the motivations of a trouble-prone, hot-shot chef while mixing in observations about the persistence of organized crime in New York and meditations on the grief process all lack originality and bite.
The show offers little insight into the pleasures and obsessions of foodie culture aside from some nicely framed cooking shots and a few visits to a bustling wholesale market. And while it might be interesting to follow the progress of gentrification in a multicultural place like the Bronx, a theme the show touches on now and then, the focus is almost entirely on a few sets of feuding white guys whose problems follow predictable arcs.
The only bright spot is the performance of David Schwimmer, who plays Tommy, a down-on-his-luck sommelier who had been a rising chef until the death of his wife, which also left him a single dad. Schwimmer gives some real pathos to his bereft character, who dips into his personal wine stash far more often than he should. The trouble is, the actor has been given mostly glum notes to play, and the show’s drab aesthetics and flat tone add to the overall tedium.
If you’re playing Antihero Bingo at home, this drama does provide a number of chances to win. Tommy’s best friend, a chef named Dion is a handsome rogue who likes drugs and casual sex, but he’s so talented that his genius allegedly makes up for all his annoying qualities. One woman throws herself at Tommy, not for reasons that are credibly developed, but because the show needs her to. A few scenes feature scantily clad prostitutes and even a pimp with a heart of gold. Generally, the women in the narrative exist to help the male characters find their true purpose. Two major characters of color — Tommy’s African-American wife and son — are dead and voluntarily mute, respectively.
Given all that, it probably won’t surprise viewers to learn that both Tommy and a local mobster, who goes by the name the Tooth Fairy, have difficult fathers. Michael Gladis (“Mad Men”), who plays the Tooth Fairy, and John Doman (“The Wire”), who plays Tommy’s tough dad, are dependably good actors, but even their solid skills can’t sustain their underwritten characters.
In the early to mid-aughts, in the wake of the success of “The Sopranos” and “The Shield,” dozens of cable dramas attempted to depict the supposedly gritty worlds of allegedly complex rule-breakers. Many of those wannabe antihero dramas were as misguided and simplistic as “Feed the Beast,” which feels as though it rolled off the 2006 assembly line. It wants credit for having complicated characters without going to the trouble of supplying depth or nuance to its world, or to Tommy and Dion. An average episode of “Chopped” contains more suspense, gastronomic fervor and character development than the first couple of installments here.
Both “Feed the Beast” and HBO’s much more expensive “Vinyl” also assume that audiences automatically will be interested in the intersection of mobsters and creative forms of expression like cooking and music, but neither of these series found new things to say about any of those worlds. At least the similarly messy and macho HBO series had a decent soundtrack.