Is there anything more Chicago than images of perfectly seasoned beef being cooked for an Italian steak, the hottest sandwich in town, set to “Via Chicago” by Wilco, the hottest band in town? In the case of FX The bear, actually, yes, more or less: before that specific piece of food and pornography heard in the pilot, two guys, one of them with the Chicago area code “773” tattooed on his left bicep, shit themselves in front of others Chicago significants: a billboard advertising Malört, a really awful drink, and an illuminated sign for Vienna Beef, maker of some really great hot dogs. The city hovers over The bear all the time, whether it’s someone complaining that the “Pilsen, Wicker [Park]and Logan [Square]” became “shits,” or how two characters in particular spit out syllables with the right attitude and non-cartoon Chicago accents.
But the most egregious reference or moment of the city as a character is saved until the opening of episode seven, when Lin Brehmer, the morning presenter of local radio station WXRT, introduces “Chicago” by Sufjan Stevens, noting that “while you listened all roads lead to Rome, some roads lead to Chicago.” The demo version of the song begins, all acoustic beats heavy before Stevens’ delicate delivery takes center stage, and we’re hit by a montage of city life: water towers and the skyline and traffic and beautiful architecture and the El and side streets captured on a morning commute and to the Superdawg Drive-In (coincidentally, the location of a Wilco photo essay for rotate). So it’s worth it, and some of the good, bad, and ugly in the city’s history are thrown in: the campaign of Barack Obama, Al Capone, and police brutality during the ’68 Democratic National Convention, to name a few.
If this all sounds a little too much, like a pretty big leap for what is ostensibly a very funny (albeit also very dark) show about the goings on at a family restaurant, strangely it isn’t. (And if you have any connection to that city, you can scoff at the above description – that Sufjan song? to be more on the nose? – but honestly, the effect is moving.) The bear has that rare ability to change the tones on a dime without feeling like it’s stretching or manipulating you or undeserved, where a comedic part about accidentally spiking the Ecto Cooler at a kids’ party in a minute is followed by an Emotionally Protected Extremely Chicago Guy telling a tear-eyed story about a deceased family member in the near.
But back to that other guy, the one with the Chicago tattoo. This is Carmy (Shameless‘ Jeremy Allen White, giving a pretty remarkable performance and looking like the role with that bleary-eyed-oily-hair-needing-a-cigarette thing going on, even though he’s strangely strong for a guy who runs a greasy spoon). He was a tireless chef in New York, having been dubbed the best young chef of the year (or something) by the food and wine, as well as winning a James Beard Award. Now, after a family shake-up, he’s back in Chicago to run his restaurant, a River North staple called Original Beef of Chicagoland. (A very minor complaint here: nowhere inside Chicago proper would have “Chicagoland” in the name of its restaurant, as this denotes the suburbs. But let’s assume they had to do this for litigious reasons. Anyway.) What’s more, he’s there to improve the game and “elevate”, as a food and wine writer could write, a classless and timeless meal.
None of this sits well with your cousin – but no technically cousin — Richy (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, who goes on a fantastic, hilarious, motor-mouthed spin), a family friend’s Energizer Bunny, and fucked-up general who has little more than Beef to keep him going. There are plenty of good deliveries from Moss-Bachrach – who plays one of those characters who picks up the Chicago accent without veering into caricature, the kind of guy who plays “darling” without irony – but here’s one:
“I can’t believe I’m taking orders from a Cum child now. All my life I’ve had to listen to everyone acting all worried about him all the time. “He’s a baby. Don’t get Carmine in trouble. Do you know? I was a baby once too, Sydney. Nobody gave a damn.”
And what the heck, here’s another, one of the many comedic exchanges between him and Carmy:
“Bullshit. This motherfucker is complete shit.”
“Perfect timing, I—”
“Who does he think he is? You know he’s not even Italian, right? One hundred percent Polish. Fucking insulting.”
“You know you’re not even Italian, right?”
“More Italian than that guy.”
Speaking of Sydney (Ayo Edebiri, also excellent and half-anchor on the show), it’s the young aspiring chef’s relationship with Carmy that becomes The bearthe focus. Like Carmy, she attended the Culinary Institute of America. Like him, she has an impressive resume, cutting her teeth at local favorites Smoque BBQ and Alinea. Like him, she is incredibly ambitious, taking over the kitchen as a sous-chef and organizing the ragtag group of employees into a work order similar to that of a fine-dining kitchen, particularly Marcus (Lionel Boyce), who gets the pastry chef’s bug. . And how Carmy, her mentor (in this case… Carmy) can be an idiot, dismissing great ideas and shutting down when there are real problems to be solved.
The rest of the cast is also great, both in the kitchen (Liza Colón-Zayas as a skeptic who has been serving sandwiches at Beef for decades, and in the consulting producer, chef and vice personality Matty Matheson, who is not a manual payroll worker) and outside of it (Abby Elliott as Carmy’s worried sister and Chris Witaske as her awkwardly good midwestern husband).
A word of caution though: do yourself a favor and give The bear at least two episodes before judging. This is hardly a hit on the pilot, but it puts you in a work environment so intense, chaotic, and cramped that it takes a little time to get your bearings and see the show and its characters beyond the chaos and flashbacks. Once you are acclimatized, The bear it becomes something of a wonder, a show with its own pace and with characters you usually want to be around, even when they’re losing control. This penultimate episode, the same with the moving montage intro set for Sufjan, ends with one of the most impressive directing feats I’ve seen on television this year: a 10-minute climax that winds through the cramped kitchen like everything else. crumbles and characters clash, this one also scored by Wilco (a wild live jam of “Spiders [Kidsmoke]”), which is perhaps appropriate: this show, like that band, like that humble sandwich, can hold crowds.