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‘The Bear’ Combines the Strengths of TV, Plays, and Novels
What, you were expecting a cooking pun?
The initial promos for The Bear didn’t appeal to me in the least. It wasn’t clear whether it was more of a comedy or a drama, and in any event, I typically don’t think, Oh, let me watch that show set in a kitchen.
But people kept raving about how brilliant this FX/Hulu series is, which got me curious. The first couple of episodes were fine, but they didn’t especially grab me. Since they were short episodes, I decided to give it a couple more, and by that point I began to suspect that there might be something to all the praise. The first season comes together in a satisfying way, and the second season surpasses it.
I won’t spoil anything since it’s such a new show. The basic premise is that Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) had left his hometown of Chicago to become a chef at fancy restaurants. But after a tragic death, Carmy returns to run his late brother’s hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop, which was not exactly a model of discipline or professionalism. Carmy attempts to turn the shop into a respectable establishment.
On the surface, it doesn’t sound like must-see television. But this is not a surface-level show. Layers of characterization slowly unfold as we learn more about what drives Carmy as well as all the other characters, especially his second-in-command in the kitchen, Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), who quickly becomes a standout.
Aside from specific key moments, the characters seldom talk about their feelings. They talk (or yell), and they show us something about their feelings and inner lives. The writers succeed in producing theatre-caliber dialogue, which any TV show should aim for. The goal isn’t cleverness or memorable lines; it’s meaningful interactions.
Created by Christopher Storer, the series combines the strengths of playwriting with the advantages of filmmaking. The cameras take us behind the kitchen doors and immerse us in the world of restaurants, showing us the difficult work that goes into food preparation and the even more difficult and stressful work that goes into keeping the lights on and doors open. You won’t ever take your favorite restaurant for granted after watching this show.
World-building isn’t just for sci-fi and fantasy. To most of us, a professional kitchen is a foreign realm, full of its own laws and language. I don’t know whether The Bear gets everything correct, but it demonstrates strong attention to detail.
The deep dive into kitchens adds another layer of fascination, but it doesn’t interfere with this being a character-driven show first and foremost. Its themes pertain to any profession, such as the issue of work/life balance and how our professional drive can either sabotage or strengthen our relationships, as well as how career goals can become an excuse to avoid dealing with personal issues.
I wouldn’t put The Bear on the level of Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul. Not yet, at least. (However, if you found Breaking Bad to be too violent at times, or perhaps a bit too larger than life, then The Bear might be more to your liking.) Like those shows, this series aims high. It rewards the patience of viewers and respects their intelligence. It strives for the richness of a novel, but in television form.
And I doubt it would have been made 20-30 years ago. It would have been too serialized for television of earlier eras. The ambiguous title and lack of an instant hook also would have hurt its prospects. The writers’ best bet then would have been to compress the story into a movie, and it might have been a solid indie movie, but it would have lost plenty. Serialized television and novels share the advantage of time, allowing them to gradually flesh out the characters and the details. And TV’s episodic structure allows the spotlight to more naturally shift from character to character.
The Bear is an ideal show for streaming. Like a good novel, it’s best consumed at your own pace.
Here are multiple nonfiction book recommendations in one brief post:
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