I've never been a particularly dedicated consumer of food shows, despite my infatuation with eating. Killing a couple of minutes before bed with whichever PBS cooking show might be on is always a simple delight (unless you are hungry). All the better if the host is traveling.
Polished food documentaries like Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) have left me cold with unrelatable philosophies of eating and feeding people. Cooking competitions fall prey to unwatchable reality show tropes (the exception being the Great British Bake Off, which despite my never having made baked goods, is a delight). Rescue-style shows, which most often seem to exist to allow someone to browbeat and chastise some poor schmuck, are a huge turnoff.
The Bear, then, comes as a wondrous surprise, instantly becoming one of my all-time favorite pieces of filmmaking as I breezed through its eight episodes last week.
The Bear traces Carmen "Carmy" Berzatto's (Jeremy Allen White) return to his family's greasy spoon restaurant, a neighborhood fixture that cranks out family-style comfort food in his hometown Chicago neighborhood for its rough and tumble habitués. Carmy had recently ascended to the pinnacle of fine dining fame and success, working, as we learn in flashbacks, in sterility and abuse under an unnamed Michelin-starred chef.
Carmy's brother Michael, who was widely beloved by his extended family of siblings, cousins, coworkers and customers, has died. The circumstances aren't initially clear, nor are the details of the arrangement regarding Original Beef of Chicagoland. Michael left Carmy half his restaurant even though he forbade him from entering it before he died.
And so Carmy, fresh from French Laundry, book publishing and celebrity kitchens around the world, must ingratiate himself to the long-toiling staff of the Original Beef and bring his elevated standards to his family restaurant.
Carmy's sister Natalie (Abby Elliott) owns the other half and it's clear she's bending over backward — taxing her own career and family commitments — to keep the place afloat, dodging tax concerns, overdue bills and more.
With the restaurant comes "Cousin" Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a brash loudmouth who's managed and run the front of the restaurant for years. Richie doesn't take well to change or to taking orders from Carmy, whose cooking background couldn't be more dissimilar. Nor does the rest of the staff, a tight-knit back-of-the-house consisting of fewer than a dozen staff members. Neighborhood toughs, health inspectors, mounting debt and other outside forces push Carmy and the Original Beef staff to their emotional limits.
The Bear plays out more like a movie than a TV series. Refreshingly free of exposition or overt explanation, viewers are left to construct the family's and restaurant's backgrounds from the ongoing relationships.
Details emerge slowly, carefully. Glimpses of the clientele indicate how important it is to the community and, in turn, how meaningful it is to the staff, the family that makes up the core of the show.
Sydney Adamu (a delightful Ayo Edibiri) a classically trained chef and Carmy fangirl joins the crew, further adding tension to the gumbo of ambitions, expectations and emotions in the kitchen.
The Bear is a story of pain, grief and trauma. It confronts the wounded masculinity of Carmy and Richie, painting a portrait of despair masked by bravado and endless workdays. Its kitchen is kinetic and claustrophobia and anxiety inducing. The cast shouts dialogue over each other as deadlines and pressures mount, wills are tested and tempers flare.
But the Bear has more heart and more to examine about kitchens where celebrity, abuse and unwavering exactitude are all but celebrated in food media. It accomplishes this while celebrating the devotion that cooking can induce in people and with loving attention to the details of a kitchen and the preparation of food.
Carmy has exacting expectations but his method is to coax the best out of his staff, to encourage their best selves, to give them the power to expect more from themselves and each other. Still, Carmy is a flawed man, a survivor of kitchen trauma, and with mounting stresses, he finds it harder to keep it together.
White, as Carmen, is remarkable in a role that seems tailored for him. He brings charisma and vulnerability to a deeply nuanced character. His talent is matched by the rest of the cast, whose backgrounds largely stem from comedy. It shows — The Bear is at times uproarious, with perfect comic timing.
The Bear is lovingly crafted, and even its most minor characters — an-always hungry hanger-on fix-it guy, the quiet dishwashing staff — are affectingly full of life. The camaraderie of a kitchen environment is real and, if people can temper their expectations and find something to reach for, it can be more family than family. There is stress, there is trauma in food. But perhaps, there can be healing in food. TVMA. HULU.
Grant Scott-Goforth (he/him) is a fan of beer, music, movies, art, animals, bikes and rivers, all in shuffling order.
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ORPHAN: FIRST KILL. The horror prequel arrives in time for the haunted Victorian doll fashion moment. Share the skincare routine, Esther. Starring Isabelle Fuhrman. R. 99M. FORTUNA.
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THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER. More Norse space-god action from the Marvel universe, with Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman doing couple-matchy capes. PG13. 119M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA.
TOP GUN: MAVERICK. Tom Cruise returns to the cockpit with a note-perfect work of pure energy that sidesteps thorny politics for the pure physicality and mental plasticity required of a modern fighter pilot. PG13. 137M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema (707) 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre (707) 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre (707) 822-3456.