‘The Bear’ finds nuanced humanity in a toxic work environment

The Bear

Hey everyone! Sorry for the informal opening to this article, but I just wanted to let you all know that I’m happy to be back writing about television (And soon, comics!) at Graphic Policy after almost a four month hiatus. One day, I’ll go into why I took the hiatus, but I really missed analyzing the media I consume and sharing my thoughts on this website even if I feel like my memory/cognitive abilities/attention span have been on the decline for the past 4-5 months or so. Well, on to the article, I guess.

Hulu/FX’s The Bear was a show that was on my radar, and a couple weeks ago, I decided to watch it while folding laundry because I thought it would have good Chicago vibes. (Chicago is probably my favorite city in the United States.) It definitely did, especially any of the close-ups of the food (Fuck, I want Italian beef.), the opening of the penultimate episode, which is a historical/montage love letter to the city set to the dulcet tones of “Chicago” by Sufjan Stevens, and funny anecdote featuring the Blackhawks and Bill Murray. However, the main reason that The Bear resonated with me is because it’s the most anxiety-inducing piece of visual media I’ve watched since Uncut Gems and captures what it feels like to be in a fast-paced toxic work environment that never lets up with frenetic editing, a jarring score, and its own unique sense of humor. Seriously, with the exception of flashbacks, we rarely get to see outside The Original Beef of Chicagoland. However, there are a moments of hope and beauty along the way, especially in the season finale.

The basic premise of The Bear is that after the suicide of his brother Mike (Jon Bernthal), award-winning fine dining chef Carmen (ShamelessJeremy Allen White) returns to his hometown of Chicago to run his family’s Italian beef restaurant that is drowning in debt, health code violations, and is barely staying afloat. Carmen seeks to change and modernize the restaurant while still staying true to its spirit while also dealing with the demons of his past experiences in fine dining kitchens and the loss of his brother. Writer/director/creator Christopher Storer uses slightly surreal imagery to show the fear, anxiety, and tenseness he feels, including an encounter with a literal bear and a darkly comic parody of a day time cooking show. Instead of going for boilerplate suspense, Storer and the other directors linger in a negative moment almost daring the characters to screw up. For example, Carmen’s sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), who has formal training at the Culinary Institute of America and idolizes him, drops jus after refusing one of her co-workers’ help, and baker Marcus rushes his preparation (Odd Future’s Lionel Boyce and easily my favorite character) and ends up tripping a breaker for the whole restaurant.

The Bear

Although the season finale features big reveals and heartwarming moments, The Bear‘s arc is one of toxicity boiling under the surface, and everyone can be the asshole. Even Sydney, who is one of the show’s kinder characters, is a passive aggressive and doesn’t offer constructive feedback when Carmen switches the restaurant’s workflow to a French brigade model. The same goes for Carmen, who lets Marcus explore his creative side and create a custom donut for the restaurant in earlier episodes before throwing the donut on the floor towards the end of the season because he’s behind on his tasks and throws a full-on tantrum when the restaurant gets unexpected influx of to-go orders. The Bear can have its wholesome moments, but something overtly or passively aggressive is always on its way as the whole season untangles Mike legacy’s for the restaurant and Carmen as a person.

I probably should have mentioned this earlier, but my only experience working food service was a three month stint at Little Caesar’s when I was 16 so a lot of the lingo that Carmen, Sydney, and their compatriots throw around was confusing to me. The big one is everyone being called “chef” as a sign of respect, but this ends up being parodied by Tina (Liza Colon-Zayas), who calls Carmen “Jeff” and clashes with Sydney because she came into a leadership role without paying her dues. Colon-Zayas has killer sarcastic timing, but she also has a softer side like when she brings her son into the restaurant for Sydney to teach him how to work in the kitchen and any time she reminisces about Mike. This is just one of many ways the writers use the language of the kitchen to flesh out characters and create tension, especially during the to-go order fiasco. It seems like a script or a template at times, and Carmen often uses it as a crutch for how he’s actually feeling.

A character who always exactly says what he’s feeling and will somehow to make nearly every situation an opportunity for an overlong story or stale homophobic or sexual joke is Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who was Mike’s best friend and was basically the interim manager of The Beef before Carmen returned. A flashback sequence shows that Richie was basically trying to pattern himself off Mike, but is weighed down by insecurities and a gnawing feeling that he can’t do anything useful at the restaurant except for threaten cosplayers with his gun or run the cash register. Fittingly, he’s in his ex’s phone as “Bad News”, but The Bear‘s writers don’t just portray him as an asshole or a heel all the time. For example, he has a conversation with his daughter where he empathizes with her being bullied and loses the wise guy act for a minute even admitting to Sydney that she knows more about restaurant repairs than him.

This interaction and others in The Bear showcase its greatest strength, which is finding the humanity beneath the toxicity. If it wasn’t for capitalism and gentrification, we could noodle with doughnuts and braised beef risotto plus the bar down the road would still be open. Jobs could be pleasant and not hellscapes of verbal abuse delivered by Joel McHale (Who plays a chef from Carmen’s past.) and Jeremy Allen White. The Bear‘s final scene includes the whole staff of the restaurant plus Carmen’s sister and her boyfriend sitting down for a meal along with one lingering shot of Michael. Not all of the interpersonal issues between Carmen and the staff are solved, but the season wraps up with him finding some closure (and financial windfall) after his brother’s passing and a golden opportunity to do thing his and his staff’s way instead of trying to decipher Michael’s “system”.

The Bear is a cathartic, at times painful viewing experience for anyone who has felt trapped in a toxic environment and has had their hopes and dreams stymied by others’ expectations or forgot what work/life balance is. It also has yummy shots of food and some wonderful dad rock needle drops and is thankfully getting a second season to explore the new restaurant and the cast’s dynamic in that space.