the bear, FX on Hulu’s new overnight hit, has been causing an internet sensation since its premiere last month. Released in a quick spree of eight half-hour episodes, the show about a struggling Chicago sandwich shop is so intense like any Safdie Brothers movie. At a time when every series feels like it’s lasted a season too long, The Bears the ferocity of rapid fire is what makes it so extraordinary.
The series stars Jeremy Allen White, who viewers may recognize from his role as Lip Gallagher in Shameless. Once again, Allen returns to the screen as a Chicago native, but this time in a much darker, more focused role that might be his best yet. Allen plays Carmen Berzatto, a Michelin-starred chef who takes over the family sandwich shop after her brother’s suicide. As “Carmy,” Allen gives us a performance that is both ruthless and vulnerable, always chock-full of frenzied anxiety. Carmy is an obsessive perfectionist determined to modernize the kitchen of Original Beef of Chicagoland, but seems unable to find emotional clarity in his own life. He fully immerses himself in the restaurant, blending its volatility with that of his own mental state.
the bear paints an incredibly authentic portrait of not just Carmy’s emotional struggle, but the restoration madness as a whole. The show gives us never-before-seen insight into the enormous toll such a world takes on its workers, causing burnout at every turn. However, the bear is far from being a nihilistic spectacle. Quite the contrary, he wears his heart on his sleeve, showing how the professional kitchen can be so much a place of growth within and from the suffering it has caused. Carmy’s journey, then, is both deeply personal and a microcosm for the struggle of the food industry as a whole.
The Rhythm of Chaos
In the first five minutes of the bear, it becomes clear to viewers that we won’t get many breaks throughout the series. The show eats, breathes and sleeps – cross out that one – chaos. From its fast-paced dialogue, kitchen disasters that seem to happen every five minutes, and with the general vibe of claustrophobia and stress, the bear is hardly a sight to watch casually. Binging could lead to certain medical traumas.
As if it were a physical symbol of this idea, the series opens with White confronting a metaphorical “bear” head-on, in a scene that is no less panicked because it is dreamy. And then: the clock strikes; he is brought back to reality. Running back and forth to get ingredients, old video games that were never unplugged ringing in his ears, unkept finances and constant, directionless screaming. The camera moves in casual close-ups of all these things, capturing the scattered focus that usurps perspective in this place.
A world of conflicting visions
If there’s one thing Carmy’s shop needs to level up, it’s cooperation and coordination. Two things. Unfortunately for Carmy, and anyone who finds themselves in a leadership position in Chicagoland, like the talented young sous chef, Sydney, no one seems to see things the same way. A predominant theme of the show is the clash between modernization and efficiency versus tradition and the status quo. Carmy’s outspoken “cousin” Richie, along with the majority of the restaurant’s other staff, would prefer to stick to the old way, as was the case when Carmy’s brother ran the shop. Yet Carmy continues to impose his idiosyncratic outlook on the crew, often inspired by the high-end dining environments of his own past.
And yet, in the Chicagoland transformation, we feel like it’s more than Carmy’s ego that’s at stake (not to say it’s not part of it). It’s clear from the start that the restaurant is in dire straits, both financially and operationally. The kitchen is an endless tangle of grudges and mixed egos, the old always finding a way to collide with the new. The tension within the team certainly seems greater than that of any cooking competition show – and they’re meant to be on the same team. One way or another, Chicagoland keeps going, and if there’s anything that unites their team, it’s their unwavering dedication.
No life outside the kitchen
Who is Carmy outside the walls of Chicagoland? We have very few answers. Indeed, the kitchen seems to be the only place where it does not necessarily flourish, but simply exists. The few bits of Carmy’s outdoor life that we get represent a barrage of missed phone calls from her sister, Sugar, and some free time at home spotted eating a PB&J sandwich. He’s not interested in anything beyond Chicagoland, which seems to be as much a coping mechanism as the result of intuitive passion. Carmy rarely smiles when he’s at work – or ever. And yet, it is the restaurant that keeps him alive. It’s not unreasonable to assume that Carmy is struggling with depression or that his brother’s death somehow broke him. In various flashback sequences, we also see scenes of the severe verbal abuse Carmy suffered while working at an upscale New York restaurant.
Carmy doesn’t have time for romance. Or with friends or family, it seems. His work consumes him, just like the bear consumes us. It’s certainly shocking, but, in a way, surprisingly cathartic.
Insecurity is the only constant
Chicagoland’s financial precariousness seems to hover constantly over the heads of Carmy and everyone else. Indeed, this is part of what is added to this some have phrased it as “soul crush” element of the show. It seems that no matter how Carmy personally advances the restaurant, he’ll never make enough money to do more than walk on water. The vast assortment of debts that Carmy’s brother Michael left unpaid before committing suicide adds an endemic sense of futility to the series. It is revealed early on that Carmy owes their uncle, Cicero, $300,000, a reality that both creeps in and intimidates Carmy for the entire series.
However, despite such circumstances, the bear is by no means a despairing or hopeless spectacle, nor a controversy over restoration. Despite the rapidity of his pulse, it is his heart that beats the strongest. We never give up hope for Carmy, or Chicagoland, or some more unfavorable characters like Richie. the bear doesn’t need to drag itself to a tasteless, soulless ending – it’s all an assortment of quick moments, each new offering a slightly brighter light.