Here’s Why You Need To Watch The Bear

It’s Un-Bear-lievable!

The Bear
The Bear

As somebody who, like so many others, has experience working in the hospitality sector, I initially viewed the promo materials for Christopher Storer’s acclaimed culinary comedy-drama The Bear with a degree of scepticism. What I gleaned from the posters was that this was another instance in the media’s long history of glorifying the destructive, self-indulgent behaviour of professional chefs, most of whom are portrayed as struggling artists whose vision and talent excuse the more distasteful and unsavoury aspects of their conduct.

I was sharpening my own (metaphorical) knives for a cutting diatribe which stressed that working in an intense culinary environment is no justification for calling your waiting staff wankers or throwing pans of boiling hot oil at one another in a bid to live out your megalomaniacal, sub-Gordon Ramsay fantasies. Thankfully, my preconceptions were misjudged. The Bear is a timely reminder never to let preconceptions or prejudices deprive you of an exceptional piece of comedy-drama.

Even having gorged myself on every one of the eight sublime episodes available on Disney Plus and Hulu, I still find myself struggling to find a way to explain the experience in positive terms, not because The Bear possesses no great qualities (it truly does) but because it must be experienced and absorbed rather than simply described. Storer’s tale of master chef Carmen Berzatto’s return to Chicago to run the family restaurant after his brother’s inexplicable suicide barely has a narrative arc, besides its titular figure’s need to make money and pay some worryingly substantial debts to some even more worryingly shady characters.

Nor is the team assembled around Carmen, himself no blue-eyed idol, composed of anyone particularly likeable, charismatic or even particularly caring. Carmen’s “cousin” Richie is a stubborn, volatile loser, his line cook Tina is brittle and mistrusting, his pastry chef Marvin lives in his own head and his new young sous chef Sydney is so pushy and impatient that she nearly drives the belittled enfant terrible to breaking point on several occasions.

Smashed together, these unsavoury ingredients only serve to cook up chaos, confusion and some decidedly bitter resentment. Carmy’s debilitating money woes aside, The Original Beef restaurant (actually little more than a greasy sandwich shop) is constantly alive with the roar of conflict, a hectic maze of smoke, steam and rampant swearing. Watching The Bear is like being struck repeatedly in the head with the biggest wok available, and amid the noise, chaos and clamour you’ll no doubt come out of the experience with a mild headache and a miniature dose of PTSD.

And yet, contrary to what I initially perceived The Bear to be, I can cheerfully admit that it’s not only up there with the best shows of 2022 but represents one of the most authentically resonant pieces of work that I’ve seen in a long, long while. Dip into a few episodes and I guarantee that you will be captivated by it in a way that few contemporary rivals can manage, engrossed by its dirtiness and its grime, enthralled by its chaos and absorbed by the dire straits its characters, more prisoners than employees, find themselves in as they strain to keep their business afloat.

Most modern workplace sitcoms like The Office US or Kim’s Convenience operate on the basis that a clean resolution is always imminent, allowing the status quo to return after the alotted half-hour running time is over. Yet there are no quick fixes or happy resolutions in the real world of urban hospitality, one defined by struggle, chaos and, in Carmy’s case, looming unresolved debts. I’ve certainly never seen anything that comes as close to evoking the experience of working in a busy kitchen. The relentless movement and noise, not to mention the dirt and the disarray, are perfect reflections of what goes on when the doors to the back areas of any restaurant, bar or hotel swing unceremoniously open.

For all the aspirations chefs and staff may have towards order and routine, life behind the scenes of hospitality is defined only by a string of fuck-ups and crises, each of which must be solved in rapid succession as five more emerge from the swirling maelstrom. Chefs and waitstaff face a hydra of calamities, and whenever one head is severed, a multitude spring forth to take its place.

Episode 7 of The Bear, in which events conspire to cause a cataclysm of Biblical proportions, beautifully captures what it’s like when the rumbling volcano finally, and violently, erupts. Starting the action off with staff member Ebraheim reading aloud a recent positive review of the restaurant, things quickly go awry when sous chef Sydney’s new ticketing system for taking orders goes haywire and hundreds of tickets begin to pile up concurrently. In a desperate panic, the staff, their head chef in particular, simply implode. One spark is all it takes to ignite the dry dynamite tucked away beneath Carmy’s battered chef’s whites.

The Bear makes its camp behind the scenes, focusing unrelentingly on the swirling confusion of the claustrophobic and extremely crowded kitchen and backrooms of The Beef. There are almost no explorations of the characters’ private lives, and while there would have been a temptation to make each figure a flower-in-the-dirt genius in his or her spare time, that very concept barely exists in the show’s universe. Seeing any one of The Beef’s employees in casual clothes is a rare and strange thing, a jarring sight that will resonate well with anyone who finds themselves hopelessly addicted, or entrapped, by the demands of their work.

The show’s characters, too, exist almost entirely as staff and nothing else. Carmy himself is not tortured by genius but by the loss of his brother, presented not as a misunderstood artist but instead as a man whose very essence is being destroyed by the burden of this unwanted new vocation. In an imperfect kitchen managed by exceedingly imperfect people, all we ever seem to see, besides arguments and friction, is Carmy and his sister struggling with nonsensical accounts or pastry chef Marcus obsessing over his experimental doughnuts.

Cousin Richie, meanwhile, may be a boorish idiot, but even he is trapped by his sense of duty to his departed friend. He makes frequent phone calls to his estranged daughter over the show’s run, but we, like Richie, barely see her. There are no heroes and villains in the world of The Bear, just combustible personalities fighting to make things work for themselves and occasionally those around them. Only very occasionally do we see staff members allowing themselves to care for one another when their tough facades fall away, and while these moments may be genuinely tender, they are also brief, unsentimental and gratifyingly lacking in schmaltz.

This commitment to claustrophobic authenticity is only aided by some of the most naturalistic yet engaging dialogue you’ll ever find in mainstream American TV. There are no flashy quips or perfect comebacks, no pithy putdowns from the oeuvre of Ramsay or Pierre White, just screams of desperation peppered with the all-encompassing encapsulation of each character’s frustration: “fuck you”. It would be easy for the profanity in The Bear to become overbearing, arbitrary or downright gratuitous, but not a single “fuck you” ever feels as though it isn’t earned. Each one has a profound and heartfelt meaning, thrown out perfectly by every member of the show’s excellent cast of actors.

Almost nothing gets solved in Carmy’s world. There are no grand schemes or quick fixes, whereas character development happens at an incremental pace, just as it does outside of the fictional realm. People learn to live together and to make the best of a bad situation, and while there are a few irritating instances of enemies quickly turning to friends that just occasionally tip over into naked sentimentality, nothing in this world smacks of being unearned or hard to believe. Everyone in the show is simply coping, either with themselves or one another, finding ways to make it through the rush and through the day. One of The Bear’s most gratifying attributes is that it doesn’t offer easy solutions to the issues it raises, be it Carmy’s alcoholism, the running of a busy kitchen or how to deal with wayward, disaffected staff members in a confined space.

If you’ve never had the pain and pleasure of working in a kitchen before, watching The Bear is the closest you’ll get to sampling a taste of the relentless kinetic rush felt by those involved when things go south and, just occasionally, click into place. For anyone who has enjoyed, or continues to enjoy such experiences, The Bear stands as one of the most recognisable and authentic pieces of TV you’ll ever see, a no-nonsense frying pan to the face that knocks you senseless before grabbing you by the gullet and never, ever releasing its vice-like grip. If you have even an ounce of good taste, get down to The Original Beef and cut yourself the tastiest, most bittersweet slice of TV this year.

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