There’s no shortage of television shows that depict grief and sadness. Prime Video’s Fleabag is an exploration through one woman’s sadness after the loss of her best friend; WandaVision from Disney+ goes through the life of a superhero that’s lost in the sadness of losing her love; Netflix’s Dead to Me is a comedic look at a woman who has lost her husband and is just trying to make it. Grief is a natural human emotion with many ways to portray across visual media. FX/Hulu have joined the fray with their new series, The Bear, that tracks one man’s journey of owning a small restaurant in Chicago after his brother’s untimely passing.
The Bear jumps right into the nightmares of its main character, Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White, best known for his role on Shameless), who has recently lost his brother, Michael, to suicide. Michael has left Carmy his restaurant, The Original Beef of Chicagoland, which brings Carmy back to his hometown of Chicago. Carmy is a classically trained chef, having worked in the proclaimed “best restaurant in the world,” so coming to this small business is quite different to him. The series quickly pushes into the restaurant, which is where most of the action takes place, outside of a few key scenes and flashbacks. This is where other cast members are introduced, including kitchen workers Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Girls), Marcus (Lionel Boyce, Hap and Leopard), Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas, In Treatment), and Neil (Matty Matheson, who is also a co-producer on the series). Fitting into a new business as the owner proves to be quite a challenge for Carmy over the course of the eight-episode first season. He brings on a sous chef, Sydney (Ayo Edebiri, Dickinson), to help with the workload and to get the kitchen in better shape, as it’s a disgusting and unorganized mess when Carmy arrives. Some of the kitchen seems reluctant to listen to Carmy, while others seem to understand the struggle that he’s going through managing an entire business while wrestling with his grief over his brother.
White confidently leads this cast in his first-ever leading role in a television series after years of being a great supporting player in the expansive cast of Showtime’s Shameless. There’s a simmering grief and anger lurking under the surface of Carmy’s façade that he projects to the world, with White embodying this masterfully. There are scenes where the audience might not understand how Carmy is feeling, which is the point; no one around him has access to his grief, only seeing the bursts of anger that come out of him when something goes wrong. White also easily navigates through each scene with a determination that matches that of his character. Without White in the leading role, this series might not work as well, but that isn’t to undermine the supporting cast. Each actor perfectly embodies their character’s truth. Sydney is a trained chef coming into this world of small business as a sous chef, which can be felt through her palpable frustration at how everything is going around her. Edebiri seems to understand Sydney’s plight, making her frustration easily accessible to the audience. Richie and Marcus are on opposite ends of the spectrum, Richie angry and upset at the new ownership and Marcus embracing the change while trying to better himself. Moss-Bachrach and Boyce, respectively, are great fits for these characters. Colón-Zayas’ Tina is the most interesting of the kitchen staff, pushing back at every request from Carmy and Sydney (especially the latter). This character could have easily been an archetype of someone resistant to new authority, but in Colón-Zayas’ careful hands, the character seems more three-dimensional and by the time the later episodes come, it becomes clearer what her motivations and drawbacks are when it comes to the new ownership of The Beef.
The writing, especially Carmy’s character, breathes new life into stories of grief. Typically, audiences might see outbursts of sadness, tears, the things that one might usually think of when thinking of grief. Carmy is written as a man who is upset by what’s happened to his brother while also allowing him frustration with the situation that his brother has placed him in. He ignores calls and texts that he doesn’t want to deal with, even (maybe especially) from his sister, Sugar (Abby Elliott, Saturday Night Live). He keeps his sadness bottled up, the only times the audience is able to see what’s going on is through his frequent nightmares and thoughts of the past while dealing with the growing pains of the present. This is a refreshing take on sadness, if only because media usually paints a more clear picture of what grief “should” look like, while The Bear explores different ways death affects the people that are left in shock, who don’t know what to do or how to do it as grief paralyzes them completely. It’s a look at how people can shut down and become unresponsive, only to have explosions of anger at the people closest to them. Each character is written in such a specific way that their traits are recognizable. The writing allows these moments of frustration, sure, but it also allows for levity in between scenes. The people in the kitchen can be funny, especially Sydney as her frustration grows at the lack of respect she’s receiving. The dialogue from Marcus, specifically, can be earnest and affecting. Later in the season, when asked how he’s doing after some problems at The Beef, Marcus replies with, “I feel okay, better – you know, my head just got real fucked up for a minute.” This might be a throwaway line coming from someone else, but Boyce makes the simple line searing, full of understanding and realism. Most of the scenes take place inside The Beef, only departing from that structure when Carmy goes to a birthday party or to Sugar’s house. These are where the characters interact with each other the most, so it makes sense to keep the setting pretty regular. This can be a double-edged sword, though, as the audience doesn’t really find out anything about the characters outside of work, which leaves a little to be desired. Sydney and Marcus are allowed one or two scenes outside of being at The Beef, but the story could stand to have a little more backstory on its characters to give them a more full feeling.
The direction of the series is what keeps the tension and frustrations of the staff going, a relentless approach that sees shifting viewpoints throughout lunch and dinner rushes that makes the chaos of the kitchen feel real. The editing, specifically in the first episode as all the kitchen workers of The Beef are being introduced, is fast-paced like a kitchen would be. There are quick cuts during these scenes that make the viewing experience a little rocky, but seems true to how these people would operate in a high-stress environment. There is a specific choice in one of the later episodes that really works: Carmy is addressing a room of people, giving a monologue about his feelings where the camera doesn’t move off of him. There are no cuts to anyone else in the room, just one long take positioned in a medium-close up on White as he makes his way through Carmy’s thoughts, finally opening up and discussing the past and its effect on him. These choices make both Carmy’s real world and business world collide as he grapples with his unexpected loss.
When it comes to an interesting take on grief, The Bear delivers a new version that can sometimes be difficult to digest. While the backstories and outer lives of the characters leave room for improvement should the series be renewed for another season, there are scenes that allow the actors to really work with their characters and breathe life into them. While the entire cast is doing good work, it’s White’s lead performance that should be taken seriously. He does great work at balancing the emotions of Carmy while embracing the intensity it requires to run a small business. While The Bear might not be for everyone (especially those who have tired of stories revolving around loss), it will certainly keep its audience entertained through its eight-episode first season as the episodes fly by.
All eight episodes of The Bear will premiere June 23 exclusively on Hulu.