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‘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.

Captain America and Black Widow Headline a Free Military Virtual Con

The current situation has impacted events all over and that extends to the military. The USO is going virtual with its Military Virtual Programming Con which takes place on October 6-8. Headling the event is Captain America and Black Widow, aka actors Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson.

While that might seem totally on the level, when it comes to Marvel and the military, questions always need to be raised. Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter has been accused of having undue influence over the Office of Veterans Affairs and has used that influence to benefit Marvel.

Other guests for the event include Norman Reedus (Darryl from “The Walking Dead” and star of AMC’s “Ride With Norman Reedus”), Gerard Way (lead singer of the band My Chemical Romance and creator of the Netflix series “The Umbrella Academy”) and Jon Bernthal (Marvel’s “The Punisher”) also highlight the event.

Much like you’d find at any other virtual fan convention, the USO’s event features panels that will be broadcast online. Panels include ones from the National Cartoonists Society Panel, MAD Magazine, DC FanDome, and more.

Unlike other events, this is meant for the military. For each Zoom event you’ll need to vouch that you’re a Department of Defense ID holder or dependent of one, but it’s the honor system. You will be asked to provide your installation, service branch and rank for yourself or your family member.

TV Review: Marvel’s The Punisher S2E13 The Whirlwind

Marvel's The Punisher S2E13 The Whirlwind

Frank, Pilgrim, Madani, Russo, Amy, Curt and the Schultz family. No bullet is left unspent as season two comes to an explosive conclusion.

Can this episode wrap up all of the loose plot ends? The episode is packed and when it comes to every episode of the season, it’s the best. The pacing. What happens. It’s just an overall solid episode that does a good job of wrapping almost everything up.

There’s David. There’s Pilgrim. There’s David’s parents. There’s Billy. There’s Krista. It all wraps up impressively in less than an hour. And more impressively it feels like everything is given more than enough time to play out. And even better, it’s in a way that feels satisfying. Except one thing. One thing is utterly ridiculous.

It’s amazing that a season that has been so uneven and so poorly plotted actually pulls together in the final episode. This is the rare Marvel Netflix season where the villains feel like they’ve been dealt with correctly.

Having sat down and watched the entire season, the ending wasn’t quite worth it but it’s a good ending. There’s very little about the season that stands out. The 15 minutes of action per episode is some of the best Marvel has put out in Netflix shows but that doesn’t make up for the 35 minutes of plodding per episode.

Again, a solid example of when a show has too many episodes to work with.

Overall Rating: 8.5

TV Review: Marvel’s The Punisher S2E12 Collision Course

Marvel's The Punisher S2E12 Collision Course

Buckle up — Mahoney and Frank are about to take a ride to remember. Amy makes an entrance, Russo cashes out, and Madani comes clean to Krista.

The best thing to say about the episode is… at least there’s only one more?

There’s movement in the Pilgrim plot with him tracking Frank’s shack down. There’s movement with Madani and the utterly ridiculous Krista plotline too. That latter one is so stupid in the result that it’ll leave you screaming at the television.

The most interesting aspect the episode is Frank wising up and going to the probable source of everything hunting down David whose blackmail triggered everything. It’s a tactic that has you wondering why he didn’t do this to start? So much time wasted.

And after just watching the episode, that’s what I’ve got out of this season, so much time wasted. You could fast forward through the episode and get everything that goes on. There’s that little of substance or anything really of interest. It goes as expected.

So yeah, one more episode to go, thankfully.

Overall Rating: 4.0

TV Review: Marvel’s The Punisher S2E11 The Abyss

Marvel's The Punisher Season 2

Amy rushes to protect Frank, who lies defenseless in a hospital. Pilgrim gets some crushing news, and Karen Page calls in a favor.

Frank has been framed and now he’s in a hospital handcuffed as he attempts to recover. There’s still a bounty on his head and $5 million sounds pretty good to folks. So, it’s an episode that’s all about building some tension if that goes anywhere and also setting up the last two episodes of this uneven season.

Much like the issue with many of the previous episodes, this one too doesn’t feel like it accomplishes much. It’s one that’s supposed to get us to the end but still, you don’t need a break to achieve that. And that’s what this is, a break. We have the guest appearance of Karen Page who isn’t needed. We have others wanting to break him out. We have actual detective work. And Billy is all snug through it all, because a wanted killer isn’t getting the cops called on him.

We do learn more about Pilgrim but that too emphasizes issues with the season. We have a second villain who has barely been used and it turns out, is actually fairly interesting. If the season stuck to him or Russo, it’d have been much stronger.

It’s yet another episode that doesn’t use its time appropriately and drags us along. I felt myself watching the screen wishing the episode would get to the point. And that right there, feels like most of the season.

Overall Rating: 5.0

TV Review: Marvel’s The Punisher S2E10 Dark Hearts of Men

Marvel's The Punisher Season 2

As Madani and Krista debate who’s worth saving, Frank prepares to storm Russo’s territory. A brutal encounter pushes Pilgrim back into old habits.

Another episode with a lot of discussion but it’s also the episode that so far has shown what this season should have been about. By simplifying the season to just be Russo vs. the Punisher it could have better focused.

The episode touches on two key things. What made Billy Russo the person he is? The second is about the vets who have rallied around him. Why have they? Both of those things would be an amazing examination of toxic masculinity as well as looking at how we fail our veterans.

The episode starts off with Fight Club and then repeats Fight Club about half way through. A bunch of hyper-masculine men who are lost in direction and feel lost. It’s all about the toxic masculinity here. Focusing on that, vet issues, you have a framework to make for an amazing season. But instead we have Pilgrim, some religious nuts, the Russian mob, Nazis. There’s too many distractions.

And then… with 14 minutes left, the action of Frank’s assault begins. Again, the episode sticks to the 2/3 1/3 split of each episode for action versus talking. It’s beyond predictable and a little too formulaic. The action though, like all the action this season, is solid and brutal.

It’s an episode that shows potential then falls into the usual pattern. It teases how great of a season this could have been.

Overall Rating: 7.25

TV Review: Marvel’s The Punisher S2E9 Flustercluck

Marvel's The Punisher S2E9 Flustercluck

A big bounty inspires New York’s worst to pursue the Punisher. A restless Amy seeks help from a fellow grifter. Russo and Krista consider the future.

And now we’re getting somewhere. Russo is putting together a small army and going all video game robbery on New York City with masks that make him and his team look like they’ve been playing too much Payday. There’s absolutely a Heat element about it all and it’s a solid segment of the episode. There’s also a bit too little of it.

The rest of the episode refocuses the narrative bringing threads together as there’s now a bounty on Frank Castle. That eventually leads to another action sequence. The episode sticks to the formula of about 15 minutes of action and 30 minutes of a whole lot of nothing.

The season touches on interesting things but never commits all the way and this is a fine example of that. The beginning with Russo is interesting. Vets not taken care of who turn to crime to take care of themselves, that’s interesting! But, too much was thrown in to the season. Too much was attempted in a story that attempts to be more complicated than it needs to be.

Another episode that shows shorter seasons were the way to go.

Overall Rating: 6.95

TV Review: Marvel’s The Punisher S2E8 My Brother’s Keeper

Marvel's The Punisher S2E8 My Brother's Keeper

Painful memories take ahold of Russo. Frank’s frustration frightens those closest to him. Madani receives a visitor bearing a warning.

Talk about an episode that starts off strong and then crashes from there. In the review for the last episode, I said it reminded me a bit of The Town and Heat and this episode’s beginning delivers on that with a gun battle in the streets of New York City. It’s a solid start to the episode that quickly goes off the rails after about 15 minutes.

From there, the episode goes back to the issue of people debating what they should do. It’s clear that Russo needs to be taken down one way or another, so stop debating and just do it. There’s also the fact that Frank had a person who could tell them where Russo’s base was and they let him go after becoming aware of the robbery plan. There’s no follow up? Russo isn’t worried his guy ratted him out? And where’s the NYPD through all of this? The Marvel Netflix shows have a habit of depicting them as rather incompetent.

It’s an episode that starts strong and just fails to deliver the further it goes along. The end has some promise but beyond that, this is an episode where you come for the gunfight in the beginning and can bail after.

Overall Rating: 6.5

TV Review: Marvel’s The Punisher S2E7 One Bad Day

Marvel's The Punisher S2E7 One Bad Day

Madani’s quest to ID Pilgrim hits a wall. Russo and his crew put their plan into action. Frank encounters someone from the past.

Things get a little better with this episode and shocker, it’s due to the fact it focuses on one thing! Russo’s plan for a robbery is what everything revolves around and it’s Frank and Curtis running around the stop him.

The episode is simple and its simplicity is what makes it work. This is all about the build up to Russo being confronted by Frank as the Punisher and the episode is a solid one in that way with a decent payoff towards the end. That’s partially because it doesn’t go over the top in what happens. Russo is hit with his trauma which causes him to freeze. There’s no crazy heroics. That comes from elsewhere.

The episode stands out because it’s focused on one thing. It doesn’t juggle too many things in the air and by doing that it can make sure what’s present is top notch. And it is. The robbery has a decent amount of humor about it. It’s tense. And, we don’t know how it’s going to end.

The episode feels a bit like The Town with a little bit of Heat thrown in. It knows what it is and doesn’t deviate from that. And for that, it stands out from a rather uneven second season.

Overall Rating: 8.0

TV Review: Marvel’s The Punisher S2E6 Nakazat

Marvel's The Punisher S2E6 Nakazat

Amy (formerly Rachel) develops photographs that point to a conspiracy. Russo reads his own report. Madani’s story about Russo comes under fire.

Things are moving forward in this episode which is frustrating in so many ways. This is a season that feels like it has a bit too much going on and not enough focus on one thing to make it enjoyable enough.

We now know what’s on the photos. We also know how those photos were going to be used and what for. There’s also Billy Russo building a group which is odd since this guy’s face is all over the place but no one seems to be turning him in to the police. Then there’s Frank with Amy/Rachel and this theme of his daughter coming back.

Going with one plot, things would be a bit stronger but nothing really feels like it has enough time being dedicated to it to fully explain what’s going on or make a whole lot of sense. Sure, this is a story that plays out over 13 episodes but like comics, you have to judge the individual episode and issue as well as the overall arc. Both suffer from decompression spreading out the story over too many episodes and issues.

Then there’s the “discovery” of Billy Russo and the result? To do things as difficult as possible. About half way through the second season and at this point, I’m hoping this is it.

Overall Rating: 6.75

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