The Bear (Disney+) is aptly named. To watch it is to experience something between a huge, enveloping hug and a huge, eviscerating attack.
The premise is simple – the prodigal returns – and not particularly new. But the execution is everything. Flawless performances, boundlessly beautiful direction and a spare, allusive script, all of which are as good in the quietest moments as the more plentiful loud ones, turn the story into something properly special.
Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White in his first and surely career-making lead TV role) is a young, award-winning chef in New York who has come back to his home town of Chicago to run the family sandwich joint after his brother Michael’s suicide.
Michael left the sandwich shop, The Original Beef, to Carmy in his will. He also left the motley crew that had been running the place. They include Michael’s best friend Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), an asshole; sweet, unhurried baker Marcus (Lionel Boyce); and bellicose Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas). Jon Bernthal as Michael appears in brief, heartbreaking flashbacks. Carmy’s one new hire is ambitious sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and is the only one in awe of – in fact the only one who understands – Carmy’s talent and reputation of him as a chef.
You will need antacids, possibly diazepam, certainly any heart medication you are on, to get through The Bear – especially its early episodes. The intensity of a commercial kitchen, from its prepping deadlines to the screaming rush of lunch hour, and the need for everyone to know their job and cleave tightly to their duties is exhaustively and exhaustingly captured.
On top of that, there is the fact that the team’s system is a rickety structure held together with hope and blue plasters. Carmy and Sydney try to bring order out of chaos, but it’s hard to do when the chaos never ends. Richie is resistant to change – partly out of innate assholery (glorious though his dismissal of the fine dining scene as “tweezers and foie gras” is) but also out of loyalty to Michael, whose loss he is grieving almost as much as Carmy is. The Bear is, among many other things, about family relationships and how biological connection can be the least of it.
It is also a study in psychology. Marcus’s imagination is seized by the vision of improvement that Carmy’s new ways offer. Carmy’s institution of the brigade system used by high-end kitchens to make theirs work efficiently, the explanations of why certain flavors and techniques work better than others, and learning to shout “Corner!”, “Behind!” and “Yes, chef!” so that everyone knows where they stand – all provide a glimpse of another world that intrigues Marcus. He is on board, although not straightforwardly – because nothing and no one in the mass of humanity that The Bear expertly blends is straightforward.
Tina – older, more cynical, more practical – requires further proof before she will let her guard down. At the other end of the scale, Sydney has to learn that life experience and caution, alongside the ambition and enthusiasm she has in abundance, count for something too.
Part of the genius of this program is not to make Carmy tortured by his own genius. He is racked by his grief from him, sure, and – as we slowly uncover his from him and Michael’s story from him, which is not fully revealed until a showstopping seven-minute monologue by White in the final episode – by his guilt from him . But his genius from him is a harnessed, controlled thing. He doesn’t use it to fuel a monstrous ego or to justify lashing out at underlings, or to do any of the other narcissistic stuff we have come to believe are natural outcroppings of outsize gifts. When he does lose control, in the penultimate episode, he has to work to come back from it. The Bear never loses sight of the graft inherent not only in earning a living but also in being a functioning, semi-decent human being.
The Bear is half-hour gobbets of kinetic, pressed, propulsive brilliance with occasional moments of stillness that make you see how much has been done in order to serve up something so delicious. This is a show that has been meticulously prepped, simmered, reduced, balanced and eventually plated up to perfection by the creator Christopher Storer and co-showrunner Joanna Calo. Dig in.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism