Now That's a Sandwich

The Bear: Season 1

I don't know how many people are familiar with the behind-the-scenes troubles that take place at their favorite restaurants. Food service can be a high stress environment on all fronts, not just on the servers but the kitchen staff as well. Actually getting a good dish made and out in front of people can be a struggle, especially with how picky customers tend to be. If you slap on the high expectations for a highly-rated, gourmet restaurant you only crank that stress up even higher. Cooking can be "easy", doing it well in a professional setting is hard.

if you watch enough cooking shows, like Top Chef on Bravo or any of the number of shows on the Food Network, then you get a glimpse of just how much effort has to go in to making a really good dish which, bear in mind, will last for a few minutes in front of someone before its gone. There's something ephemeral about the culinary arts as your work is there and gone, devoured by the masses. You have to nail it for those few bites or you fail.

That is certainly he vibe conveyed by The Bear, the FX on HuluOriginally created as a joint streaming service between the major U.S. broadcast networks, Hulu has grown to be a solid alternative to the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime, even as it learns harder on its collection of shows from Fox and FX since Disney purchased a majority stake in the service. drama that was the talk of the Online circuit last month. Me, being the kind of person that immediately shies away from anything I hadn't heard of that everyone is talking about, elected to wait a while to see the show. "Watch what's cool when it's cool? Gross." Now, though, I've gone through the whole series at my usual binge pace and I have to agree: this show is great. It's also stressful to watch at times because it's all about a restaurant and the struggle to keep the kitchen going. If you've ever worked in a kitchen before you'll feel the pain of these characters all too well.

The Bear focuses on Carmy Berzatto, aka "The Bear" (Jeremy Allen White), a once-rising chef in the culinary world before he had a bit of a flame-out after his brother committed suicide. He hadn't been close with his brother, Mikey (Jon Bernthal), in some time but his death was still quite the shock to Carmy. As his last act, Mikey left his restaurant to Carmy, leaving "The Original Beef of Chicagoland" (aka, "The Beef"), for Carmy to hopefully turn things around at the shop.

The shop, it should be noted, needed serious help. it was way underwater on its debts and likely to go to the bank at any moment. His sister, Natalie (Abby Elliott), signed onto loans for the restaurant as well and she's not only going to be on the hook for all that money but also is now under investigation by the IRS because Mikey wasn't paying owed payroll taxes. Oh, and Carmy has to deal with Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), their cousin and Mikey's best friend, who thinks he knows how to run the restaurant "the right way". It's an uphill battle made only slightly easier when another trained chef, Sydney Adamu (Ayo Edebiri), comes to work at The Beef. Maybe between them they can actually turn the ship around.

I am not a Chicago native so I can't speak to how authentically the Chicago experience is presented here. I've read reviews that said the accents weren't quite right, that the way The Beef sandwiches were made aren't true Chicago Italian Beef-style sandwiches. Maybe that's fair, maybe it isn't, but I do feel like that misses the point of the show. Sure, it's fun to get pedantic about certain details but, where it counts, this show nails the important details.

In this case, the important details is the struggle to stay sane when you're being a professional chef. Carmy comes into a restaurant that wasn't run by trained gourmet chefs, in large part because Chicago Italian Beefs aren't considered "gourmet" food. That may be true, but there's skill and knowledge that comes from making fancy dishes and what a trained chef can bring is professionalism to a kitchen, They can lift everyone around them up and make a place run more efficiently. That's what Carmy brings when he steps into The Beef, and much of the drama is his battling against the staff at that restaurant and their old ways of doing things.

Sydney also steps into this kitchen and discovers just how hard it can be as an outside in a close-knit group like the long-term staff of The Beef. Carmy gets some hazing from them but they'd known him for years and years. Sydney has a different battle, one that was far more up hill, and seeing her slowly winning the staff over with her skills gives her character a rich storyline all her own. Between her and Carmy, seeing the two of them struggling to keep the restaurant going as bills come due and money runs tight, gives the season a solid arc that really drives the story.

As a bonus, the cooking is great, too. You can watch professional cooking shows and say, "that's really cool but when would I ever need to cook this way," much like who you might think you never need to learn Algebra because, "why would I need this?" But then you see how these high level skills can be applied to more "basic" food and it gives you an appreciation for how these techniques can be applied to anything. In that regard The Bear becomes a kind of aspirational show, something where you can see people doing cool things in the kitchen and you think, "hell yeah, I can do that, too."

If there's one little flaw with the show I think it comes in the way it ties things up at the end of the season. Without spoiling anything for what is still a very new show, you get the vibe that the creators purposefully wrote an ending that could stand as a series finale just in case they never got a season two. The logic is sound because, hey, who'd really care to watch a drama about chefs in a Chicago Italian Beef shop? The ending makes sense as a way to say, "hey, we told this story, now we can walk away." It's a little happy and too pat, but it could work in that context. However now we have been told a second season is coming and you have to wonder just how they're going to derive drama considering where everything ends. It's a question we'll hopefully get a solid answer to next year.

Outside this little quibble, though, The Bear is solid drama. It's a show I started watching just because Hulu wouldn't stop suggesting it, but once I started I found I had to keep going. It's immensely binge-able with a story that keeps dragging you forward. I am looking forward to season two just to know what happens next. Will the shop find the new clientele they want. Can they really change everything around and make something great? I want to know and, once you watch this season, I'm sure you will too.