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Not So Fast on ‘The Bear’

The FX series has quickly established itself as the surprise hit of the summer. Our critics debate the show’s successes as well as some aspects of the series that should’ve been 86’d.

Hulu/Ringer illustration

In the week since its release, The Bear has quickly established itself as the surprise hit of the summer. The FX series has received rapturous reviews and inspired ogling fancams, the surest sign there is of a dedicated—and thirsty—fan base. Here at The Ringer, though, the show’s reception hasn’t been quite so unanimous. To break down the show’s strengths and potential flaws, staff writers Alison Herman and Charles Holmes convened for a disagreement considerably more polite than the shouting matches at the Original Beef of Chicagoland.

Alison Herman: Charles, there are two things I care about in this world (besides my loved ones, of course): food and television. The Bear is basically made for me—at least in theory. The FX dramedy, now streaming all eight episodes of its first season on Hulu, is a TV show that dedicates itself to the rhythms of a restaurant kitchen in all its loud, frantic, fast-paced glory. Unscripted television, of course, is chock-full of food programming. There’s an entire network devoted to it! But there are far fewer efforts to combine culinary subject matter with an original story, making The Bear stand out by default.

Other publications have praised The Bear as “extraordinary” and “the show of the summer.” For me, though, the show hasn’t quite resonated on that level. To be clear: The Bear is not bad, and, frequently, it’s very good. The performances are uniformly excellent. Jeremy Allen White, deepening his Chicago bona fides after a decade on Shameless, leads as Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, a prodigal son who returns to run the family sandwich joint after his brother’s death by suicide. He’s supported by standout turns from Ayo Edebiri as Sydney—a young, ambitious sous-chef who volunteers to help Carmy remake The Original Beef of Chicagoland in the image of their shared fine dining experience—and Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Richie, a hotheaded dirtbag who calls Carmy “cousin” even though they aren’t related.

The Bear also inarguably succeeds at its central mission: to recreate the texture and feel of a slammed dinner service or a collegial family meal. The series was created by frequent Bo Burnham collaborator Christopher Storer, who turned to his sister Courtney—former culinary director of L.A. hotspot Jon & Vinny’s—for firsthand experience. He also sent actors to train at world-class restaurants like Pasjoli, Kumiko, and Hart Bageri in Copenhagen. (I had the privilege of trying their pastries this past spring. The hype is real!) All that prep pays off in a viewing experience that’s thoroughly immersive, starting with a pilot shot at the actual Mr. Beef on Orleans in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.

Before we get into my gripes, I want to hear from a vocal fan like yourself. What makes the show work so well for you? And are naysayers like me totally off base?

Charles Holmes: The Bear knows what it is. That shouldn’t be enough to laud a show as one of the year’s best in our current content Ragnarök, but the bar is so low it belongs in the basement. Instead of 60 minutes of prestige TV padding, The Bear settles and thrives within the 30-minute format. Rather than cliché jokes about chefs spitting in food, the FX dramedy finds its humor in the much more fraught terrain of interpersonal trauma. Every member of the cast, whether it’s with the simmering misery of White’s Carmy or the abrasive charisma of Moss-Bachrach’s Richie, does just enough to shine without distracting from the ensemble.

Any time The Bear is on the edge of making the easier, more expected decision, it veers into something more interesting, even if it’s imperfect. I saw some of your tweets predicting the avalanche of critical praise, so my “y’all need to relax” meter was acutely attuned—I was ready to not fall in love with this show. But I was entranced from the first second of the pilot up to the season finale. The claustrophobic intensity of Storer’s direction immediately communicates the bubbling toxicity of this environment in a way most shows can’t with an entire season of screen time. Rather than spoon-feeding the audience, The Bear moves at such a kinetic pace that you’re forced to keep up. I had no idea what family dinner was or what made a Chef de Cuisine so important, but I never felt lost in that confusion. The show was so engrossing, I trusted the creators would help me understand the intricacies of its world without the need to treat it like a Wikipedia page.

But, more than anything, I found the central conflict of The Bear fascinating. Carmy and Sydney want to do better. They’re two young chefs reeling from the abuse of the culinary world and envisioning a way to break free of that system. To watch them fail and slowly transform into the very monsters they hated is compelling TV. In each episode we see a loving family take shape in the kitchen, but deep in the recesses of your mind you know Carmy and Sydney are one bad night away from screwing it all up. Their late-20s-early-30s idealism is no match for the soul-crushing weight of the food industry.

Above all else, I’m a hater first and foremost. So please, let’s get into it. What about The Bear doesn’t work for you, Alison?

Herman: Let’s kvetch! The Bear is a show that toggles between two different registers: the hyperrealism we’ve discussed and a surrealism that comes through in flourishes, like the video game graphics in the premiere or the faux-sitcom in the finale. To me, the weakest parts of the show get lost in the vague space between the two.

Take the characters—I agree that Carmen and Sydney have the most fully realized arcs. But those arcs are meant to include outgrowing the egotism and abusive environments that shaped them. That journey gets undercut by their show’s treatment of some secondary players. Carmy’s sister Sugar complains that her lone surviving brother calls her only when he needs something and never asks how she is; The Bear itself ends up guilty of the same solipsism, using her exclusively to berate Carmen and as a stand-in for the normal life he could be living. If her role is meant to be a commentary on the emotional caretaking female family members often take on by default, it’s a subtle one. Richie, too, is more of an idea than an individual. He’s there to complain about changes big and small, from Carmy’s use of bone-in beef, to a ham-fisted plot about gentrification. In this world, cities are either for salad chains or shady dealings, not the mess in between. And The Bear is best when it gets messy.

But it’s also a big-picture take on food—what you get when you zoom out from the second-by-second scramble to what The Bear actually has to say about its chosen milieu. This show lives entirely within the long shadow cast by Anthony Bourdain. (It’s arguably the most significant food series since the short-lived adaptation of Kitchen Confidential that ran for 13 episodes back in 2005, starring a young Bradley Cooper.) And its ultimately romantic view of commercial kitchens as a magnet for workaholic misfits comes straight out of the memoir that made Bourdain famous more than two decades ago. The Bear shades that portrait in with well-observed details, but it’s working within lines that are already drawn. These narratives aren’t just handed down from the world of food. This entire era of television descends from a drama about the many meanings of family to an Italian American with a passion for cured meats. The Bear is just more literal about that influence than most.

I’m not saying clichés don’t have their place; the coastal elite yanked back to the heartland to redeem themselves through unglamorous work is a time-honored template that powers countless Hallmark movies and, also, Schitt’s Creek. The Bear’s setup also has a basis in reality: here in Los Angeles, incredible restaurants like Anajak Thai have come from kids applying cheffy modifications to their parents’ blueprint. I’m just saying The Bear is a sometimes uneven mix of thrilling novelty and well-worn tropes. (As a music critic, I bet you have thoughts on the liberal use of Wilco and Sufjan Stevens in its portrait of Chicago.) That mix may smooth out in the end like Marcus’s donut batter, but it’s worth acknowledging—flaws and all.

And there you go! I’ve bared my soul and gone against my beloved colleagues’ consensus. What say you?

Holmes: Carmy and Richie are the Bare Minimum Bears. No matter how many donuts they destroy, guns they fire off in broad daylight, or Ecto Cooler punch bowls they accidentally drug, it doesn’t matter. All that’s required of them are half-hearted apologies and the world (or a deceased brother) hands them tomato cans filled with money. There’s something sad yet hyper-authentic about someone like Carmy wanting to change, but the system rewarding him whether he does or not. That’s why the show’s treatment of the secondary players who revolve around Carmy and Richie feels true to life even if it’s often hard to watch.

The various women and people of color in their ecosystem are forced to be the receptacles of their tantrums and aggression. There’s nothing more realistic than a competent Black woman like Sydney being terrorized for her competency. Of course Marcus would be punished for his single-minded devotion to food (and the art of the donut), while Carmy is venerated by the culinary world for his. Is Sugar underdeveloped? Yes. But there’s also something crushingly true about a woman having to hold a patriarch’s hand through an emotional crisis and receiving nothing in return. Now the more cynical side of me wants to say this is all unintentional, but then I think about the look on that poor woman’s face as she hears Richie’s tired Bill Murray story. I believe the writers understand that no matter how charming their protagonists are, they’re still a tad pathetic. Part of my enjoyment of The Bear was interrogating why I still loved Carmy and Richie despite their constant mistreatment of the sweet humans around them. In short, my heart isn’t immune to the himbo.

I do agree with you that The Bear isn’t above falling into classic TV comedy tropes, but those felt like guardrails for the viewer. There’s such a tension and anxiety in how the show is shot by Storer and co-showrunner Joanna Calo. After every episode, you feel like you’ve been cooped up in the pressure cooker that is The Original Beef of Chicagoland. When The Bear leaned into jokes or schemes that felt a little more sitcom-ish, those were the moments that allowed me to catch my breath. The reason it’s so difficult to pull off fictional portrayals of restaurant culture is that the minutiae of cooking is often boring. If it’s not in a competition format or there isn’t an engrossing personality at the center of the frame, most peoples’ brains turn off. The Bear avoids those pitfalls by feeling like a (dark) family comedy first and a show about cooking second.

But let’s keep it real: Nothing about Episode 7, which is in the running for one of the best half hours of TV in 2022, got to you?

Herman: That actually plays right into one of my remaining reservations (no pun intended). As a stand-alone piece of television, “Review” is indeed astonishing, condensing every brewing tension and fraught dynamic into one shift from hell. After six episodes released as a binge, though, I found my synapses were a little fried, and the sensation was subsequently dulled.

A quick scan of The Bear’s episode descriptions reveals an obvious pattern: “Things go wrong in the kitchen.” “A bad day in the kitchen.” “Things get out of control.” Repetition, of course, is key to the sitcom structure that’s part of the show’s DNA. It’s also key to the point Storer and Calo are making: how the screeching grind of restaurant life slowly wears on your nerves until you snap, taking your anger out on the poor staffers for showing the creativity and initiative you asked of them.

But The Bear’s all-out commitment also has its downsides. The show comes out the gate with the volume already cranked to 11, which is part of what makes it compelling from the jump. (No “it gets good if you just wait five hours” hedges here!) By the time the viewer gets to Episode 7, though, their ears have already adjusted to the volume. I found myself asking a question that comes up a lot with TV these days: Would this make more sense as a movie? A story in which the claustrophobia has a beginning, middle, crescendo, and end—as opposed to a more open conclusion?

We don’t know yet whether The Bear will get a second season. Though, frankly, I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t. Assuming it will, what do you want to see from the show going forward? And are you ready for eight more episodes of Uncut Gems–level anxiety?

Holmes: Your observation about The Bear always playing at 11 is astute; it feels like maintaining that level is almost a necessity. I get the sense that if this show was even a tad softer it wouldn’t cut through our summer of dis-content. Even when I left an episode exhausted, I at least remembered that visceral emotion, which I can’t say for much programming in 2022.

The Bear’s second season is intimidating to think about. We spent eight episodes on what is essentially a prelude. There had been hints throughout the season that The Bear wasn’t just a metaphor for the aggressive animal lurking within our chefs, but also an idea for a restaurant that’s always been right out of Carmy’s reach. Part of me wants to see the show do an Atlanta-style tone pivot. If this season was all about the unrelenting agony and tension of ambition, what would a more serene version of The Bear feel like? I’m not saying that version of the show would be better, but I am curious to get more into the nitty-gritty of the cooking experience. I want to understand how Carmy’s vision of food differs from Sydney’s. If there’s an episode purely based on Carmy’s dissatisfaction with plating or how a sommelier paired the wrong wine with his signature dish, I’m all for it. Now that most people love this dysfunctional family, there’s room for more world building. And hopefully Marcus gets to keep making beautiful pastries that go unharmed.

Herman: Whatever our differences, I think we can agree Marcus and his stand mixer are to be protected at all costs. As for where the show goes from here, I’m curious how The Bear will engage with its most deeply embedded trope, one well-put by Sydney at the climax of “Review:” “You are an excellent chef. You are also a piece of shit.”

The figure of the difficult male genius has long dominated TV’s mythology, both in front of and behind the camera. The same figure can be found in real-life kitchens, which has created a mythology that’s lately been challenged as social upheaval rocks the industry. The brigade system Carmy imposes on his new shop is rigidly hierarchical and designed to execute a single vision—his. A lot of what we’ve discussed here today comes down to depicting a problem versus internalizing it in the execution. My hope is that The Bear leans ever further into challenging the auteurist idea of the brilliant, damaged, irascible artiste. Given Calo’s experience on my beloved BoJack Horseman, as thorough a deconstruction of the antihero as there is, I know the potential is there.

Anyway, thanks for the discussion! Since I’m several thousand miles from an authentic Italian beef, I’ll settle for Googling some recipes for chicken piccata.