In a hectic restaurant kitchen in Chicago, minutes before service, two chefs square up to one another. The sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) is furious that manager Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) has taken over her station; his sloppiness is slowing her down. “You’re a loser, you’re a waste of space,” she goads. “You’re conceited and condescending,” he replies sharply, fed up of being told off by a woman nearly half his age. A riled-up Sydney brandishes a gleaming chef’s knife. Machines whirr and beep over a cacophony of raised voices. Their boss starts screaming. And then Richie throws his hands up in surrender, and promptly backs into the blade. Sydney has stabbed him in the back (actually, the butt). It’s a brilliant moment of physical comedy that pierces the tension in The Bear, an intense TV drama whose themes include grief, substance abuse, mental illness and gentrification. Interesting then, that the show, which won six awards at last night’s Primetime Emmys, has been recognised by Hollywood as a comedy.
The first series follows the emotionally wounded Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), an award-winning chef who returns to his hometown of Chicago in the wake of his brother’s suicide to save the family business. Carmy plans to turn The Beef, an Italian sandwich shop, into a fine-dining restaurant: The Bear. The second series is more of a classic ensemble drama, whose focus widens out to Carmy’s team, including the head chef and rising star Sydney, a placid pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce), and “cousin” Richie, a divorced dad who was best friends with Carmy’s late brother Mikey (Jon Bernthal). The heat of the kitchen is immediate; the show moves at a dangerously frenetic clip, hurried along by the warning sounds of sizzling oil and ticking clocks. The action, like the real world of hospitality, is powered by pressure, and adrenaline. That pressure provides a welcome distraction for a group of characters who’d rather dunk their heads in a pot of boiling water than deal with their problems.
The characters in The Bear find it hard to care for themselves, and so they lose themselves in service, channelling that energy into taking care of others. The art of hospitality, with its emphasis on discipline and details, is treated with the same holy reverence as the food itself. From a nostalgic chicken piccata to a cursed platter of cannoli or a softly set omelette, garnished with a handful of crushed crisps, the show uses food to evoke memory, and to explore character. Spaghetti pomodoro, served for the staff family meal, is Mikey’s recipe, and a painful reminder that he’s gone.
And though plenty of funny things happen – like when Carmy gets trapped in a walk-in freezer, or when Richie caters a children’s party and accidentally spikes a vat of punch with Xanax, leaving the kids conked out instead of experiencing a sugar rush – the show’s gallows humour is mostly another mode of deflection.
Those moments of respite stop The Bear from tipping into full-on melodrama. Its creator Christopher Storer gives viewers a taste of what that would look like in “Fishes”, an emotional rollercoaster of an hour-long bottle episode in series two. It takes place during a disastrous Christmas Eve dinner five years prior, when Mikey was still alive. In that episode, the Berzatto matriarch Donna (Jamie Lee Curtis) prepares an elaborate meal based on the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Booze flows and tempers flare; to describe it as The Family Stone on cocaine, if the family were The Sopranos, would be under-selling the Yuletide miserablism. Verbal insults are lobbed like grenades, and actual forks are thrown, too. It explains how Carmy and Richie have learned to thrive among the swirling chaos of the kitchen.
If elements of The Bear’s shout-y, swear-y energy recall the brutish kitchen culture of a show like Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, Storer subverts that cliché by placing a more tender protagonist in the eye of the storm. Skilled, sensitive and emotionally unavailable, Carmy has reinvented Allen White as a heart-throb (the actor was previously best known for a long-running role on the US version of Shameless). With his tortured blue eyes, rumpled curls and tattooed biceps bulging from a white T-shirt so perfect it spawned multiple articles, the actor was selected as the new face of Calvin Klein. The underwear campaign featured Allen White biting into a red apple, like the biblical temptress Eve. But the show’s popularity doesn’t simply hinge on its star’s sex appeal, as Allen White’s colleague Edebiri has wearily pointed out. “I’m putting it away,” she said when a reporter approached her at the Golden Globes with a cardboard cut-out of her scantily clad co-worker.
The individual members of the ensemble, many of whom are working class and/or people of colour, are key ingredients to the show’s success. The slapdash Richie despairs at being “45 years old, polishing forks” at a Michelin-star restaurant, but soon learns the value of taking pride in one’s work. While staging in Copenhagen, the gentle Marcus discovers that quiet, patience and precision are qualities that are actually suited to making desserts. And striver Sydney proves her worth, not only to her colleagues, but to her father. It’s the kind of rich character development that’s missing from most TV and films. Like in a great sports movie, the thrill is in seeing each team member working in synchronicity, lest the whole performance fall flat.
[See also: Why Donald Trump will win]