Cinema has always had a thing for food and fractured relationships. In Jon Favreau’s Chef (2014), the eponymous protagonist (and absentee father) re-connects with his son as they road-trip across the United States, while making and selling Cuban sandwiches out of a food truck. In The Lunchbox (2013), Ritesh Batra weaves a beautiful tale around a lonely housewife and a lonesome widower finding comfort in each other through tiffin-boxes that deliver letters, and of course, food. And who can forget that haunting scene Wong Kar-wai conjured in In The Mood For Love (2000), where Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung – neighbours and victims of infidelity – exchange glances on a dingy staircase leading to the street vendor they both frequent at dinnertime.
FX’s critically acclaimed show The Bear (2022) is of the same ilk. It is, ostensibly, about the workings of a dysfunctional, rundown restaurant (‘The Original Beef of Chicagoland’) in Chicago. But scratch the surface and it reveals itself to be a story about loss and legacy; about the challenges faced by a man who is attempting to keep his family business afloat, while untangling his relationship with an estranged brother who is no longer alive.
The first episode introduces us to the chaos that is a restaurant kitchen, at least this restaurant kitchen, serving a seemingly uncomplicated fare of beef sandwiches. The chaos feels natural, necessary even, to the kitchen staff who rail against the restaurant’s new proprietor, Carmen Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), and his new-fangled, bull-headed ideas. We discover that Carmen (‘Carmy’ to his family and colleagues – he does not have any friends) is an award-winning chef who has abandoned his career to take charge of the family-run restaurant he has inherited following his brother’s suicide. Unfortunately, this is not a happy homecoming for Carmen. The restaurant is a mismanaged business on the verge of bankruptcy, and the staff treat him as an intruder in their midst. The stage thus set, he hires a talented sous-chef, Sydney Adamu (an inspired performance by Ayo Edebiri), and sets about the task of saving the restaurant.
A story premised on a renowned eatery which has lost its way in time and is now surviving on nostalgia, is one that has universal appeal. In Mumbai, where I live, establishments such as Britannia & Co., Café Military, or Kyani & Co. offer delicious food but what sets them apart – and attracts customers – is their rich history. Delicious food is hardly in short supply in this city, but only a few places can deal in the currency of old-world charm. It is the same back home in Kolkata where the Golbari Mutton Kosha and Anadi Cabin’s Mughlai Parantha, for instance, have attained legendary status while the restaurants themselves appear to have turned their backs on modernity. Switch Mumbai/Kolkata for Chicago and the premise still resonates. The mythical aura surrounding The Original Beef of Chicagoland, its faithful patrons, its desperate need to cling to its identity, and the idiosyncratic ways of its staff who see change as ruin, all make sense.
Over the course of eight episodes, we are drawn into Carmen’s mind which is as turbulent as his kitchen. His genius is an undisputed fact, a gauntlet thrown down at the very beginning with no challenger in sight. But this is Hollywood so he has to be the tortured genius. The Boy Wonder who is well-intentioned but flawed, with his own particular brand of ursine demons to battle. At the heart of The Bear is Carmen’s fraught relationship with his late brother, Michael, and his struggle to come to terms with Michael’s death.
Sydney, the easy-going and enterprising new recruit, is the counterpoint to Carmen’s intensity. Her journey from being a diffident newcomer to a well-loved member of the crew, is carefully etched out and runs in parallel to Carmen’s restless and urgent attempts at coming to grips with his new life. Indeed, the tension crackling between Carmen and Sydney as they pull and tug at each other’s vision of how the kitchen ought to function, is one of the best things about the show. Importantly, Sydney’s character is written with nuance. She reveres Carmen’s culinary skills but has that rare ability to distinguish between the art and the artist. “You are an excellent chef,” she tells Carmen at one point, then adds, “You are also a piece of s***.”
The supporting cast, while brilliant, largely serve as the canvas to showcase Carmen’s edgy brilliance and Sydney’s personable composure. There are, however, a couple of notable exceptions. Richard “Richie” Jerimovich (played cantankerously by Ebon Moss-Bachrach) is ever-present as Michael’s best-friend-cum-restaurant-manager-cum-fixer who resents Carmen for taking over the restaurant and yet continues to help him run it. And then there is Marcus (an endearing turn by Lionel Boyce), the resident baker, whose obsession with creating the perfect donut is a delightful story arc which culminates in a memorable moment at the end of Episode 7.
Incidentally, it is the single-take, one-shot Episode 7 (titled ‘Review’) that has garnered considerable praise and rightly so. With no cuts and the camera frantically following the cast as they hurtle around the narrow confines of the kitchen and restaurant floor while being assailed by one crisis after another, it makes for twenty minutes of breath-taking and breathless viewing. But for me, the highlight of the show comes later. At the beginning of Episode 8 (titled ‘Braciole’), Carmen delivers a seven-minute monologue with the camera still and fixed on his face. Its high-octane excursions from the previous episode are now a distant memory. Over the seven minutes, a wealth of emotion is expressed in Carmen’s eyes as he reminisces about the childhood he spent with his brother and how they grew apart. The monologue is meant to be a breakthrough for Carmen, a resolution of his pent-up feelings about his family and the restaurant as he finally comes to terms with himself in his new environs. It is a moment that grips the viewer’s heart and refuses to let go.
For most of its runtime, The Bear is chaotic, frenzied, even anxiety-inducing, with its spectacular soundtrack adding to the unsettling feeling of watching a ticking bomb while waiting for it to explode. In those stripped down seven minutes, it proves to be a show you cannot take your eyes off even when it is at its calmest.
The Bear is available on Disney+ Hotstar in India.