One of the greatest delights television has brought me over the years is any show that knows how to lovingly film a plate of beautiful food, turn the sound up to 11 to hear it sizzle, and trace its origins to the family dinner table from whence it came. Few things can bring people together like food, and few pleasures in this world like taking a bite of something so delicious it makes your eyes water just to know it exists.
“The Bear,” FX’s new series about talented young chef Carmen (Jeremy Allen White of “Shameless”) going home to run his dead brother’s sandwich shop in Chicago, is highly attuned to what makes a gorgeous dish. “The Bear” also details exactly how much frantic, eye-watering pressure every restaurant kitchen is under to make it — and as such, is one of the most stressful shows I’ve seen in a hot minute. If you’re looking for so-called “food porn,” this isn’t where you’ll find it. But if you’re at all curious about how the sausage gets made, the passion that goes into it, and the sacrifices people make in order to get it from the stove to your table — as well any food-loving person should be — this series (out in its entirety today on Hulu) should be on your radar.
From Christopher Storer (“Ramy”) and Joanna Calo (“Hacks,” “BoJack Horseman”), the series adopts a grounded cinema verité aesthetic to make the kitchen at Chicago’s Original Beef feel palpably crowded, greasy and, occasionally, alluring enough to justify why its employees keep going back day in and day out (much to the increasing frustration of Carmy’s sister, played by Abby Elliott, who wants nothing more than to forget their brother’s restaurant ever existed).
The old guard, who worked under Carmy’s brother Mike (played in brief but memorable flashback by one Jon Bernthal) before his sudden death, include quietly creative baker Marcus (Lionel Boyce), stalwart line cook Ebraheim (Edwin Lee Gibson), and resident loudmouth Richie (a tightly coiled Ebon Moss-Bachrach, whose Chicagoan accent flares into flabbergasted Jason Mantzoukas territory the angrier Richie gets). There’s handyman Neil (Matty Matheson) and wary prep cook Tina, played by Liza Colon-Zayas in a turn that reveals new layers with every episode. When Carmine and his New York City fine dining experience take over, alongside skilled new sous chef Sydney (an excellent Ayo Edebiri), it takes more than a minute for everyone who knew and loved the original restaurant, as flawed and chaotic as it was, to adjust. That Mike apparently owed their uncle (a scene-stealing Oliver Platt) hundreds of thousands of dollars only adds to the daily crush of hopelessness that threatens to swallow everything whole.
“The Bear” isn’t shy about underlining its starkest themes or specific location of choice. (If you’re wondering how long it takes for them to play Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago,” the answer is six episodes.) It also isn’t the first show to tackle the realities of running a restaurant and working in a kitchen. (See: Fox’s ill-fated 2005 adaptation of Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential,” starring none other than Bradley Cooper.) It does, however, uniquely position itself to convey the boiling hot stress of it all, as in the careening seventh episode, written by Calo and directed by Storer, that unfolds in real time as everyone scrambles to keep up with an avalanche of to-go orders.
From the performances to the directing, to the steady pacing of the episodes (eight in total), there’s a thoughtfulness to “The Bear” that keeps it from sinking into the pit of self-pity that keeps tempting everyone who walks through the kitchen door. And with White practically vibrating at its center, imbuing Carmy with such pained restlessness that it’s often hard to look at him straight-on, what could easily tilt into cliché instead becomes a character study of people on the brink of triumph or ruin — whichever comes first.
The first season of “The Bear” is now available to stream on Hulu.