It’s stressful from the opening scene. A succession of quick-fire shots cut abruptly between burning stoves, frowning faces, people bustling past one another and knives chopping ingredients at the speed of a ninja. Watch out! behind, behind!, that sauce is still not ready, corner!, that table will be here any minute! corner! careful! still not right! that dough isn’t fully cooked, corner! You’ll be wondering the whole time when exactly are things going to go belly up, because working at that speed, something has to go wrong. A severed finger, a burn. It’s impossible to operate at this pace and not have an accident, and without realizing it, your body is already feeling the stress. Luckily, episodes are short, because The Bear (available on Disney+) is tense and chaotic, as should be the case with any series that wants to truly convey what working in a restaurant kitchen is really like. Those rare and fleeting moments of peace and tranquility, like the quick cigarette breaks, are the only times you’ll be able to relax while watching this series that brings you as close to the characters as two coats of paint, making you feel you should be constantly stepping aside to let them pass. The setting might be a small Italian-American sandwich shop in Chicago but this show has the adrenaline rush of the best action series.
That said, stress in the workplace isn’t the only focus where the tensions pile high like tinder, and soon audiences will be lumped with a host of additional worries that are about to flare up: the economic woes as the restaurant, going through tough times, is cash-strapped and unable to pay some of its suppliers, the unannounced drop-in visit from the health inspector and then there’s the constant family disputes, which really leave an indelible mark on audiences in the long run. This is a family-run restaurant of a household that has recently been rocked to its core by tragedy after the eldest sibling’s suicide, leaving a huge void in the lives of the rest of the family, coupled with a business adrift. The protagonist, played by Jeremy Allen White (Lip in Shameless) abandons a promising career as a chef in a prestigious restaurant to return home with a mission to keep the family restaurant afloat, clearly his way of managing his grief. Keeping his brother alive through the business he ran, even though it means taking a major step down in his own professional career and perhaps a step down that will be definitive.
His arrival on the scene pits him against his deceased brother’s best friend, who has taken over running the premises provisionally. Different approaches to managerial style merely open the door to far deeper and more obscure disagreements and resentments. However, they are compelled to find common ground if they are to keep the business afloat, something both want, unlike the sister, who would gladly sell up to the highest bidder at the drop of a hat. Then, in the midst of all this conflict we have the kitchen staff, each with their own opinion and their own ties to the shop, and who constitute a group of employees for whom the day-to-day pressure has created an environment where both banter and hard truths are regularly spat in your face. But despite the jokes that border on stab wounds, they are a much tighter and closer-knit group than they themselves would like to admit. As the series progresses and each character is allowed the space to develop, we discover a different side to each of them. Series creator, Christopher Storer (writer of Ramy) is no stranger to finding ways to take characters out of their usual context or routine to discover a facet we hadn’t been privy to.
The result is a series filled with genuinely believable characters, with their contradictions, doubts, fears and passions, all penned into the same cramped space and dealing with a day-to-day struggle through an obstacle course of challenges in order to ensure the business survives. And unlike other shows set in the world that lies behind the doors to every restaurant kitchen, the dishes are not additional elements of the decor for the basis of producing pornofood, nor do they appear the likely subject of an Instagram post or would-be feature on some TV cooking show, where we’re accustomed to seeing perfectly arranged, staged and presented dishes. Not here. Here we see imperfection, the hands that work the food, the perspiration on the chefs’ brows, the cock-ups and the elbow grease. As a series, The Bear is a dish that doesn’t require cutlery to be consumed. Just grab it up in your hands and dig in. It’s spectacular.