For over a month there have been whispers of a sensational new tv series called The Bear. Launching in the US mid-July (and now streaming on Disney+ in Australia), the show has a 100 per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and incredible reviews both from critics and viewers. But what is the series actually about – and is The Bear any good and worth watching?
Short answer: yes, absolutely, stop what you’re doing and binge it. But let’s get into why, because what I expected the series to deliver was not at all what I got.
We’re start off with Carmy (Jeremy Allen White of Shameless fame) facing down an actual bear. It’s a dream, of course, and he wakes up in a different, but nonetheless very real, nightmare. He’s managing a crumbling family restaurant with no cash and staff that are difficult at best. Over the course of the first episode we learn that he was an incredibly successful young chef who worked at some of the finest establishments in the world, but has recently returned to his hometown of Chicago to take over this family Italian beef sandwich shop. It’s a divey, hole-in-the-wall takeaway joint that does a bland spaghetti and a decent sandwich, but Carmy is determined to make it a success.
He’s pushing against a brick wall – the staff are loyal but stubborn, his brother – who owned the store but recently killed himself – has left a mountain of debt behind, and his trainwreck cousin Richie (Ebon Moss-Bacharach, who played Marnie’s husband Desi in Girls), seems hell-bent on blocking Carmy’s every step.
I was expecting The Bear to be a frenetic, fly-on-the-wall look at the workings of a successful, busy kitchen. It is that, to a degree, but in my mind the series was going to look at a successful restaurant and the BTS drama. Someone should definitely make that series, but it’s not what we get with The Bear.
This is an underdog story. We’re spoon-fed crucial back story as we roll right into the high stress, high chaos day-to-day. It’s gruelling and honestly will leave you feeling pretty stressed out. From exploding mixers to catastrophic health inspections, IRS tax complications and at one point, an actual gunshot through the front window, we – just like Carmy and co – never know what the hell is going to happen, or whether the store will even be running by the end of an episode.
Yet, they endure. In this way, The Bear has echoes of Ted Lasso. There is a lot of heart here – a family that’s grieving but tight-knit, a young superstar chef intent on seeing the family legacy survive, and a bunch of kitchen misfits that seem to love and hate each other at the same time. You can’t help but root for this little store and the people in it. At one point, a makeshift outdoor stove is created using building cast-offs from a demolition site across the road, just so the lunch rush can be catered to. It’s so wholesome it hurts.
But while Ted Lasso is all positivity in the face of adversity, The Bear is more like watching a cat get thrown off a building, then land on its feet. No one has their head screwed on straight – in fact, most of the key players are complete messes. Cousins Richie and Carmy rip into each other every chance they get. Not only is the store struggling, it’s being sabotaged by its own staff as kitchen infighting ensues (just try not to scream internally when one staffer purposely destroys a stock that’s been simmering for hours, just to stick it to another chef). It’s all chaos, all the time and no one’s feeling particularly positive about anything – yet, they keep trying.
The chemistry between these actors is the glue binding this series together. Yes, the writing and direction is impeccable – show runner Christopher Storer is the focus of bulk praise for the way he has paced the series (and for the gorgeous soundtrack that’s filled with 90s classics, all hand-picked by Storer for each scene). But without the energy between the small cast, this show would have nothing.
There are so many brilliant pairings. Allen White and Moss-Bacharach spar like actual family, their back-and-forth dialogue snaps and crackles and carries that familial history we’ve recently seen in Succession – watching two grown men fight like they would have as six-year-olds. Moss-Bacharach deserves bulk award nominations for his take on Richie, you can tell he’s revelling in the hurricane-like nature of the character, a hothead with very little forethought about anything who bashes his way through life while also thinking he knows all the answers (but rarely does).
Then there’s head chef Carmy and his sous chef Sydney, played by breakout star Ayo Edibiri – do they have brother/sister energy? Potential lovers? Really, it doesn’t matter. Their blossoming relationship is tender and feels real. Edibiri truly shines in every scene – a stand-out being a reluctant drive to the hardware store with Richie, which turns into one of the most heartwarming moments of the series.
The excellent performances aren’t limited to these leads, however. Everyone in the kitchen brings their A-game, from Liza Colon-Zayas as the prickly longtime employee Tina to Abby Elliott, playing Carmy’s grieving and concerned older sister Sugar. This is a show that could have been all about Allen White, but instead becomes about an ensemble cast that has you caring about everyone, not just Carmy.
There’s a little lag over the middle episodes in this season – you just want to see Carmy and his team catch a break, but we’re delivered crisis after crisis and while the uphill battle storyline is what grips us, it’s a bit depressing when the odds just keep building against him.
It’s not enough to dull the shine on this series, though. This will hands-down be the topic of conversation at the office water cooler for the entirety of September, trust me on this. Christopher Storer – thank you, chef.