Download: The Beef is Closed, ‘The Bear’ is Coming
Christopher Storer’s The Bear dropped on June 23 on FX, smack dab in the middle of Emmy voting for the 2022 awards. There probably wasn’t a worse time for a film and TV journalist to discover a new show while trying to keep his head above water doing interviews with prospective nominees and trying to squeeze in reviews and think pieces.
The good news about modern television is that you don’t have to be there from the jump anymore. You can go to whatever streamer is carrying the show (in this case Hulu) and see what you might have missed.
That’s how I caught up to The Bear, and I state freely—with great confidence and all the genuine hype I can muster—that The Bear may well be the best new show of the year.
The pilot episode comes at you fast and furious, at a pace so frenetic that you might have second thoughts about staying committed to the show. However, what episode one does so well is introduce you to the players, the basic storyline, and the show’s entire ensemble.
What we learn at breakneck speed is that Carmine “Bear” Berzatto (the brilliant Jeremy Allen White) has left a job as top chef at a high end restaurant to come back to Chicago to take over the sandwich shop that his brother Mikey left for him after committing suicide. (I can’t spoil the surprise by telling you who plays the dead brother in flashbacks). The kitchen is a mess. Mikey had been dealing with substance abuse, had gotten behind on the bills, and let his crew fall into disorganization and disarray.
Unsure of why his estranged brother left him the restaurant in the first place, Carmine is not welcomed by the staff with open arms. All are suspicious of his fancy culinary gifts taking over their eatery—after all, this is a sandwich shop called The Original Beef of Chicagoland (lovingly nicknamed “The Beef”). It is not exactly a fine dining joint.
Having become accustomed to Mikey’s loosey-goosey style of leadership, when Carmine brings in Sydney (Ayo Edebiri, a real casting gem), a young woman fresh out of the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA), tensions mount even further. Things become particularly heated between Sydney and Mikey’s best friend, “Cousin Richie,” who isn’t actually a cousin, but has been a part of Carmine and Mikey’s life so long that, for better or worse (probably more often for worse), he is family.
As played by Ebon Ross-Bachrach, Richie is afflicted with OCD, depression, assholery, and probably a few things the psychological community hasn’t named yet. It’s a bold high-wire act by Ross-Bachrach, who throws in just enough shades of light and humor to allow you to put up with his often intolerable behavior as he pushes back on every idea Carmine and Sydney have—even those of obvious merit.
The truth is, Richie is hurting too. The reasons for Mikey’s suicide are unclear to everyone. Richie thought Mikey would leave the restaurant to him, not the younger brother Mikey hadn’t spoken to in ages. Richie is suffering from guilt and resentment—two things his already complex personality didn’t need. At heart, though, Richie does love Carmine, and he wants the restaurant to be saved.
However remarkably, and in no small part due to the incredible performance by Ebon Ross-Bachrach, Richie becomes a genuinely sympathetic character by the close of the season. It doesn’t hurt that Richie can be wildly amusing. Such as when he backs into Sydney’s knife (only partially an accident) and receives a stab to the keister. He later opines, “What happens if you get stabbed in the asshole? You can’t sew an asshole!”
While The Bear piles in a lot of front matter in episode one (including the enormous stress of working in a restaurant), in other ways, the show reveals itself patiently. Why did Mikey kill himself? Why did he leave the restaurant to Carmine? Why would Carmine even want it? As the episodes move along, you can intuit some of the answers to these questions, but in no way are you spoon fed easy explanations. In that way, The Bear sustains a level of mystery that keeps you intrigued by more than just the chaos of saving a failing business.
The stress, grief, and guilt all build up to the penultimate episode (episode 7)—which is portrayed in real time—showcasing the last twenty minutes of prep before The Beef opens. If possible, this episode is even more hectic than the pilot, as, in this case, everything that can possibly go wrong does. To make matters worse, the stew of frustration and pain boiling in Carmine’s head finally spills over the brim and in less than twenty minutes he manages to alienate his staff so badly that two crucial members quit, and what already seemed like an impossible task—turning The Beef around—looks doomed as the credits roll and the episode closes.
Then comes the finale, which I don’t mind telling you is one of the most perfectly paced and satisfying season enders I’ve seen in a long time. As Carmine attends an AA meeting, he begins to tell the story of he and Mikey’s falling out, and of why he needs to save the restaurant. As Carmine exposes his anger and sadness, he stumbles onto the reason he came back to Chicago and took over a sandwich shop:
“I think it’s very clear that me trying to fix the restaurant was me trying to fix what happened to my brother.”
It’s an almost excruciatingly emotional sequence, over six minutes long with only one early minor cut, and lines so perfectly delivered by White that one can’t help but think that the race for best actor for next year’s Emmys begins here. I always thought White was a bit undervalued on Shameless (also set in Chicago). William H. Macy got the awards love and Emmy Rossum was the focal point, but White was a grounding force on the show, too. As the streetwise and academically gifted Lip Gallagher, White was easy to root for—no matter how self destructive his behavior. Those same skills are put to incredible use here. White has always reminded me of a young Sean Penn. Here’s to hoping his career has a similar trajectory.
Considering the show’s rave reviews, strong ratings, and early renewal, The Bear is well set up for awards consideration this time next year. It will be interesting to see how the Television Academy categorizes The Bear. With episodes that run from 20-47 minutes, that length usually puts a show into the comedy category. But despite being frequently uproariously funny—such as when Carmine and Richie cater a birthday party and accidentally spike the punch with Xanax leaving a gaggle of pre-teens passed out on the lawn—The Bear is not a comedy.
It’s a story of pain and possible redemption in a hardscrabble restaurant full of people you root for even when you are going slightly mad watching them try to get out of their own way.
The last few minutes of the finale are truly something to behold. Set to the pensive strains of Radiohead’s “Let Down,” Carmine is finally given a note that Mikey left for him. Embedded in that note is a clue that leads to a new hope. The two cooks who quit return. Carmine puts up a sign on the window:
“The Beef is closed. The Bear is coming.”
As the crew finds joy in an old recipe and a new beginning, the camera closes in on White’s wonderfully expressive and beleaguered face, then cuts to Mikey, looking over his shoulder and smiling back.
And it’s all just so… perfect.
The lump in my throat. The chill down my spine. The quickening of my pulse. This is why we who write on film and TV do what we do. For moments like this.