The recipe for a dysfunctional sandwich shop is simple — hurled insults, kitchen slang, toxic family members and just a dash of Chicago roots. Reminiscent of Anthony Bourdain’s rough and troubled tales of the kitchen, Hulu’s latest comedy “The Bear” serves up a mean and addicting plate of underdog kitchen drama that slices up the many layers of what it means to run a family restaurant.
After his brother’s suicide, celebrated chef Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) moves back home to run his family’s sandwich shop, The Beef, in Chicago, leading to friction between his own restaurant beliefs and those of the stubborn staff at Beef’s. Teetering on the edge, Carmy is challenged with repairing a chaotic kitchen, mounting debt and straining family relations in a thrilling whirlwind of anxious food service.
“The Bear” doesn’t softly fold its viewers into the unknowns of the sandwich shop, but slams the audience right into a fresh day at The Beef. Abrupt zoom-ins and film photography of ’80s family dinners bullet the highly stylized screen as Carmy dashes about the kitchen and city, confirming that this hectic restaurant story has no neat table setting for its guests.
Carmy’s sharp dialogue and anxious acumen whip him into the perfect underdog main dish. As a charming pairing to the kitchen’s cast of colorful characters, White’s performance marks a center of gravity for the noisy show, as he subtly guides both the kitchen and the audience without ever overpowering the palate. Carmy almost feels like an evolution of White’s previous role as the clever Lip in “Shameless,” sharpening the same wild energy into a coarse, driven performance.
Ayo Edebiri crackles as newcomer Sydney in a standout performance, her snapping insights stirring a deeper level of authenticity into the comedy’s already-brimming pot of bona fide kitchen madness. Her wry wit deftly snags smiles from increasingly severe moments in the kitchen without ever diminishing the emotional intensity. Additionally, Edebiri’s sarcastic acuity pairs perfectly with the seasoned White, making for a salient mentor-student duo that thrives on screen.
Sandwiched between the hectic kitchen and Carmy’s screaming psyche, “The Bear” plates a pensive, quiet landscape of Chicago, defined by the soft blues of the early mornings and late nights the chefs keep to themselves. Carmy quietly watching a hazy sunset, Sydney waiting for the train at dawn and Marcus the patissier (Lionel Boyce) dreamily admiring freshly baked glazed perfection through a donut shop window are just a few of the fragile, hopeful moments where the audience can take a breath with the exhausted crew.
The overlooked hole-in-the-wall kitchen is an effective narrative platter to serve such a complex and heavy handed topic upon, with the motley kitchen staff as its own dysfunctional family unit alongside Carmy’s fractured kin. Allowing snaps of laughter beside harsh mistakes and vicious arguments as both Carmy and the restaurant slowly find their way, the rough series captures the awkward and brutal ripple effect that the void left by loss creates.
“The Bear” is most engrossing when trapped in the blistering kitchen rush, balancing manic passion and steel tenacity with bursts of sweet, striking sadness. While the show’s characters are lit up by their ambitions, donut innovation and obscure arcade tournaments promos, “The Bear” itself partially falters when taking on more abstract moments such as Carmy’s surreal dreams. Following one such sequence, White delivers a striking monologue that, while exceedingly simple compared to the complex dream, is a far more thoughtful and sincere look into the tangled threads between his brother’s suicide and the restaurant Carmy so desperately tries to repair.
Putting on an episode of “The Bear” feels like pulling up a chair to a large gathering; intimate, dysfunctional, uniquely distressing, yet honest in the way only family can be. A reminder that a family worthy of five stars can be found in all the wrong places, “The Bear” is a gritty portrait of resilience with always just the right amount of sarcasm to garnish.