A bear’s stuffed head. A knife slipping into a fistful of spring onions. The incessant noise of fluorescent light against linoleum. These images are what propel viewers from scene to scene in Christopher Storer’s Hulu series The Bear.
Starring Jeremy Allen White as Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, the eight-episode series follows a chef’s return to Chicago to rescue his family's floundering sandwich shop, The Original Beef, after the death of his brother. It combines both the wonderfully fast-paced montage shots of culinary shows with the subtle digs of irony so beloved in dramedies. The show creates a storyline that alternates between darkly humorous and bitterly sad. Buoyed by a frenzied popularity on social media, including many a thirst tweet about White, The Bear soon established itself as one of the most widely-acclaimed shows of 2022.
The story begins with Carmy receiving the family restaurant. Once a prestige-graced chef of the fine dining world, he must now deal with a rapidly-shrinking budget, uncompromising staff and the sober realities of grief. The Bear is a story about returning to one’s roots: Carmy cannot bear to let this restaurant die and neither can Richie, his deceased brother’s abrasive best friend, not without sacrificing key parts of their personal histories and identities. Sydney, the ambitious sous-chef that Carmy hires, also has fond memories of the sandwich shop that underlie her career aspirations. Nobody else on the staff truly understands the extent of Carmy’s genius and what it means for him to be back at the shop except for Sydney, who recognizes his credentials and questions why he has returned to a failing business.
The pressure builds with each episode, leaving the audience wondering when it will boil over. Every screaming match (of which there are many), every twitch of a rapidly-dicing knife leaves the viewer wondering how long it will take for the staff to finally crack, to relinquish what little self-control remains.
The second episode, “Hands,” introduces the viewer to Carmy’s traumatic, if prestigious, experience in the kitchens of an NYC establishment. There, the chef was abusive, emotionless and devoid of the passion one would expect of a cook. The camera focuses on the pristine, porcelain-white environment that Carmy works in, then transitions to the grimey interior of The Original Beef, complete with greasy paper-wrapped sandwiches. In this setting, Carmy screams at his own staff amidst the chaos of the kitchen. What The Bear does so beautifully is making you hate each and every character during moments like these. As much as you love and sympathize with them, you also understand that they are deeply-flawed people – not the perfect storybook characters that so many shows seem to sport.
Another episode of note – this time, the penultimate “Review” – consists of a singular shot, tracking each character from one unbearably tense scene to another. This stroke of cinematographic genius only accentuates the show’s proximity to its boiling point. The hurried movements, punctuated with periodic swearing and kitchen accidents, leave you uncomfortable and unsure of just when the already-strained bubbles will finally burst. But what’s interesting about this episode is that it starts with a radio playing Sufjan Stevens’ iconic song “Chicago” over a montage of the city. Guitar riffs and Stevens’ iconically-ethereal lyrics float over the dark machinery of the "L" train, the distant sirens on Carmy’s commute to work.
“I fell in love again / All things go, all things go,” Stevens sings. Really, at the heart of The Bear is a show about falling in love with the right things again, about reclaiming passions for yourself. It’s about having room for growth and taking advantage of it, letting true passion have the space to flourish. It's a show that allows a pastry chef time to match the glazes of his donuts with Pantone color swatches. Even Richie’s story, arguably one of the most irritating parts of his already antagonistic character, is telling of his desperation to entertain, to be liked by being the life of the party.
The Bear is a study of the unlovable: characters, environments, values. It’s difficult to watch Carmy and his staff turn on each other and succumb to pressure-cooker environments, but you can’t help but follow every prickly interaction, every charged kitchen montage. And at the end of these eight, all-too-short episodes, you’ll want to cry over a Chicago Italian beef sandwich.