The Bear on Hulu Mauls the Wild Male Genius Chef Myth

Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto ricochets around his dilapidated Chicago restaurant like a man who burns from the inside out. From the moment he first appears in the new Hulu/FX series The bear, we recognize the type: brooding bad boy chef with tousled hair and an armful of tattoos. Any city with many restaurants in America probably has its share, presiding over kitchens that, like… Anthony Bourdain put it Kitchen confidential“noisy, riotous and overloaded with fake testosterone.”

The golden age of prestige cable and streaming programs fed on just such macho renegades; in fact FX has built its brand on series like save me (edgy, distressed firefighters), The shield (edgy, restless police) and Sons of Lawlessness (edgy, restless motorcyclists). So it’s amazing that it took so long for TV to perish on edgy, troubled chefs. An attempt at adaptation Kitchen confidential in a network series—starring Bradley Cooperno less – flamed back in 2005.

In recent years after MeToo, there has been a rethinking of the myth of the lone male genius chef. Too often this figure has become ensnared in a toxic, abusive work culture, a restaurant industry in which bullying and sexual harassment were accepted and ignored as byproducts of the high-pressure command structure. This is the moment when The bear gets in, eyes wide open and ready to pull the tablecloth out from under the whole thing. Carmy, played with extraordinary magnetism by Jeremy Allen White, is a well-made neighborhood kid. He’s honed his skills at some of America’s finest restaurants (French Laundry! Noma!) and has the physical and psychological scars to prove it. Now he’s back at his family restaurant, the Original Beef of Chicagoland, which he inherited from his late brother Michael. It is in a state of complete chaos: filthy, undisciplined and crushed by debt. All of this fuels Carmy’s mounting panic, which is matched by the series’ tight pace, propelling us through each frantic and poetic half-hour episode.

Sometimes Carmy has flashbacks to one of the great restaurants he trained at. Unlike the Original Beef, that high-end kitchen is glossy, white and orderly, full of delicately arranged dishes that look more like paintings than meals. But Carmy’s boss there (played by Joel McHale) is a sadistic chef who taunts and tortures his staff. “You’re terrible at this, you’re not good at it,” he encourages Carmy. “Go faster, motherfucker!” All the while, the camera remains focused on Carmy’s desperate blue eyes as he frantically conjures up a beautiful plate of food.

Chafing under the wild male genius mantle, Carmy is determined to be a different kind of chef running a different kind of restaurant. He hires Sydney Adamu (Ayo Edebiric), an ambitious Culinary Institute of America graduate, to help him reshape Original Beef. Sydney is overqualified to be a sous chef at a local diving school, but she adores Carmy’s food and shares his vision for a kinder, gentler food culture. “It doesn’t have to be a place where the food is crappy and everyone behaves badly,” she says. It’s not easy to convince the existing kitchen staff, who are wary of these Escoffier-worshipping strangers. Richie is especially resistant (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a boastful family friend who had run the restaurant with Carmy’s brother. Richie sees Carmy as a pretentious upstart, the one who escaped while he stayed behind and kept Original Beef alive.

“I don’t care what you do in Napa with your tweezers and your foie gras,” Richie bellows, ordering Carmy to serve the restaurant’s traditional spaghetti instead of the fancy new dish he’s prepared. Then Richie sneaks out to taste Carmy’s food and moans with pleasure. Other staffers find themselves inspired again. Original Beef Pastry Chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce) grows adorably obsessed with making the perfect donut, while old school line chef Tina (Liza Colon-Zayas) gradually drops her seething resentment and embraces the new atmosphere. “This is real and alive and… good,” she says, as amazed as anyone else.

Just as Carmy strives to create a culinary workplace that doesn’t revolve around a single dictatorial author, The bear is an ensemble production full of spiky, lively performances. Sydney is confident and has perfect comedic timing (Edibiri has a background in stand-up), while Abby Elliott is good (if underused) as Carmy’s sister, Sugar. She is frustrated by his inability to express feelings, though the camera catches a glimpse of the immense sadness pulsing beneath his skin. And Richie – he’s an asshole and he knows it, unfortunately he confesses that his young daughter asked if his full name is really “Richie Bad News” because that’s how he’s mentioned on his ex’s phone. He spent his life as a sidekick to Carmy’s charming big brother, and now he struggles to find his place in this new order. But Richie and Carmy aren’t all that different: Each takes pills and tries to suppress their grief over the loss of Michael. Only in the finale does Carmy finally let go in an intense seven-minute monologue.

The bear constantly walks a line between quiet realism and hyperactive fantasy. Again and again, showrunners/directors Christopher Storer and Joanna Calo (whose collective resume includes) Framehacking and Bojack Horseman) increase the action to a fever pitch, then pull back. Fires erupt, fuses blow, windows are shot at, violence breaks out. There are a few points where storylines turn into the ridiculous, but I’d rather see the show take things too far than play it safe and make the same old spaghetti.

If you’ve ever seen the reality series Kitchen nightmaresin which Gordon Ramsay brutally criticizes restaurants that have fallen into disrepair, recognize some of the dysfunctional family elements that play a role in The bear† Because despite all of Carmy’s good intentions, he can’t contain his demons. “Is there a name for that thing where you’re afraid something good is going to happen because you think something bad is going to happen?” he asks Richie, who replies, “I don’t know, live?”