Hulu’s New Restaurant Drama Succeeds Where So Many Fail
About a week ago, I was thinking about how rare it is to find a TV show with a unique premise that’s self-contained—a show that knows what it’s about and doesn’t try to be more than that, and through its groundedness, it ends up breaking barriers that most ambitious projects try and fail to do. Yes, this was all brought about by my disappointment with Stranger Things season 4, but that’s neither here nor there. Fast forward to yesterday night, where I was weeping on my couch watching the season finale of Hulu’s The Bear, and I’m once again filled with hope that there’s still uniqueness and creativity in the bingefest that is modern television.
I know, that sounds so pretentious, but I really do mean it when I say that this show is something incredibly special. The Bear begins with chef Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto returning to his hometown of Chicago to fulfill an obligation. His brother, Michael, recently died and has left their family’s beef sandwich shop, “The Beef,” in Carmy’s name. But Carmy is used to fine-dining and high-stakes kitchens, while The Beef is anything but that: It’s a chaotic shitstorm with no discipline, and the employees—including his cousin Richie—are more than reluctant to listen to their new chef.
It has all the trappings to be yet another overly-weepy, immature show about a “rowdy gang of misfits” who become a found family with absolutely no realistic payoff. Instead, it kept itself firmly grounded in its premise, which is: It’s a show about real people, working in a real kitchen that needs just as much help as they do. And it’s beautiful.
Carmy is an anxious wreck, and I can’t think of a single episode where he isn’t red in the face, veins popping off, as he’s trying to get the situation under control. Richie is an asshole, but he, more often than not, faces the direct consequences of his behavior (such as literally, albeit accidentally, getting stabbed in the ass). Sydney, the new sous-chef, is trying hard to establish herself as an authority, but it’s hard when literally everyone is breathing down her neck. And the list goes on and on with these characters, who feel incredibly charming and real, even when we don’t get to know some of them as much as the others.
It’s worth mentioning that one of the side-characters is Matty Matheson—yes, that Matty Matheson, from VICE’s Munchies—and while it’s hilarious that he’s just some bumbling side-character who doesn’t know what he’s doing, it also goes to show that a lot of care went into making this show as true to reality as possible. Working in a kitchen is hellish. It’s not all fun and games like in most onscreen depictions; it’s a lot of stress and high blood pressure, and more often than not, the cooks are some of the grittiest MFs in the building. But the show neither glamorizes nor condemns this line of work—it simply shows the reality of it.
Things eventually get to the point where Carmy realizes his current trajectory is untenable. All the little mistakes have been adding up, and it culminates in episode 7, “Review,” which takes place entirely in one scene: a kitchen in chaos. Sydney accidentally left the preorder option on their webpage after accidentally giving a reviewer some risotto that wasn’t even on the menu. Instead of slowing down, Carmy tries to rise to the occasion and fulfill all the pre-orders, which don’t stop coming in, and the vibe of the whole situation reminds me acutely of Whiplash. Everyone is screaming, Sydney and Richie are trading words like blows, and in a moment of pure, undeserved rage, Carmy destroys a new donut that Marcus—the sweet, peacekeeping baker—put so much time and effort into.
What’s especially laudable is that this sort of anger isn’t shown in a romanticized way, the way that men’s anger is sometimes portrayed as a “comeuppance” against opposition. Carmy keeps screwing up, and he knows it. He has dreams about setting the kitchen on fire, and he can’t stop thinking about Mikey. When he goes to Al-Anon meetings—not because he himself is an addict, but because Mikey was—he isn’t afraid to let it all down and admit how hurt he is inside. It’s neither emasculating nor awe-inspiring; it’s just real. Carmy feels like a real guy, someone who needs to buck up, someone who you just want to hug and take to the beach so he can relax for a goddamn minute.
I’ve never worked in a restaurant, largely because I’ve heard from friends how devastating it can be. I think it takes a specific kind of person to be able to endure, let alone thrive in, that line of work. Yet, even so, I was still hooked by The Bear, from start to finish. Everything about it is done with care and deliberation, and every little plot beat helps strengthen the story’s core even more. I honestly can’t imagine it going on for another season, because it’s wrapped up perfectly, and I sort of hope it’ll remain in that beautifully self-contained sphere of existence it created for itself.
But, either which way it goes, this show is a triumph, and I’d heartily recommend it to anyone. You can stream it now on Hulu. Just … don’t do it on an empty stomach.
(Content warning for prospective viewers: Suicide is involved in a major storyline.)
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.
(featured image: FX on Hulu)
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