"The Bear" (Disney+) is aptly named. To watch it is to experience something between a huge, welcoming hug and a devastating, relentless attack.

The premise is simple - the prodigal returns - and not particularly new. But the execution is what matters. Impeccable performances, incredibly beautiful direction and an economical and evocative script, all of which are equally effective in the quieter moments as in the louder ones, turn the story into something genuinely special.

The Bear Series Review

Carmen "Carmy" Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White in his first and undoubtedly career-transforming TV lead role) is an award-winning young chef in New York who returns to his hometown of Chicago to run the family diner after the suicide of his brother Michael.

Michael left the eatery, "The Original Beef", to Carmy in his will. He also left the eclectic team that ran the place. This includes Michael's best friend Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), an unpleasant fellow; the sweet and quiet baker Marcus (Lionel Boyce); and the belligerent Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas). 

Jon Bernthal as Michael appears in brief, poignant flashbacks. Carmy's only new hire is the ambitious sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and is the only one to admire - indeed, the only one to understand - Carmy's talent and reputation as a chef.

To keep up with "The Bear", you'll need antacids, possibly diazepam, and certainly any heart medication you're taking - especially in the first few episodes. The intensity of a commercial kitchen, from the tight deadlines for preparation to the deafening lunchtime rush, and the need for everyone to know their role and carry it out with precision is captured in a thorough and exhaustive way.

Carmy and Sidney

What's more, the team structure is a fragile construction sustained by hope and makeshift bandages. Carmy and Sydney try to impose order on the chaos, but it's difficult when the chaos never stops. Richie is resistant to change - partly due to his unpleasant nature (although his dismissal of the haute cuisine scene as "tongs and foie gras" is glorious), but also out of loyalty to Michael, whose loss he mourns almost as much as Carmy. "The Bear" is, among many other things, about family relationships and how biological connection can be the least of factors.

It's also a study in psychology. Marcus' imagination is captivated by the vision of improvement that Carmy's new approaches offer. Carmy's institution of the brigade system used in high-class kitchens, the explanations of why certain flavors and techniques work better than others, and learning to shout "Corner!", "Back!" and "Yes, chef!" so that everyone knows where they are, provide a glimpse into another world that intrigues Marcus. He's on board, although not directly, because nothing and no one in the mass of humanity that "The Bear" masterfully blends is simple.

Tina - older, more skeptical, more practical - needs more proof before she lets her guard down. At the opposite end of the scale, Sydney needs to learn that life experience and caution, along with the ambition and enthusiasm she possesses in abundance, also have their value.

Plot intent

Part of the genius of this show is that it doesn't make Carmy tormented by his own talent. He's tormented by pain, sure, and - as we slowly discover Carmy and Michael's history, which isn't fully revealed until an impressive seven-minute monologue from White in the final episode - by guilt. But his talent is something controlled and tamed. 

He doesn't use it to feed a monstrous ego or to justify abuses against subordinates, or to do any of the narcissistic things we believe are natural results of exceptional gifts. When he loses control, in the penultimate episode, he has to work to recover. "The Bear" never loses sight of the inherent effort not only to earn a living, but also to be a functional and reasonable person.

"The Bear" are little half-hour nuggets of kinetic brilliance, pressurized and captivating, with occasional moments of tranquility that make you realize how much effort has gone into serving up something so delicious. This is a show meticulously prepared, simmered, reduced, balanced and eventually served to perfection by creator Christopher Storer and co-showrunner Joanna Calo. Enjoy.

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October 24, 2023