The Bear spares no time introducing itself: In the first five minutes of this Hulu series, we’re thrown into crash zooms of the Loop skyline, eccentric parking lot deals framed between Malört and Vienna Beef signs, and fast cuts of final-notice bills for the Italian beef restaurant that serves as the show’s claustrophobic primary setting — the show takes a highlighter to the fact that we’re in Chicago.
That initial speed won’t let up during the pilot, nor through the four episodes viewed for this review. Billed as a half-hour comedy, this new series about young fine-dining chef Carmen Berzatto (played by Shameless’s Jeremy Allen White) inheriting his family’s beef place can feel more like a tense, grimy race: quick shots, a rush of pissed-off characters, and the constant bleed of money that owning a restaurant can entail. Call it the Uncut Gems of the food world and you’re not off to a bad start.
Restaurants are mean places partially because work is mean: bills are always due, equipment always breaks, lunch always has to be served. The show’s antagonist isn’t Carmen, his coworkers, or even the health inspector, but simply time itself. There’s always a clock ticking for unpaid debts, and margins shrink as food costs inflate. Especially as we hurdle toward stagflation, this feels both incredibly relatable, and like a breath of fresh air: All the characters are too human to be villainized.
They’re just fun to watch, too: Liza Colón-Zayas plays Tina, one of those employees who’s seemingly been around as long as the institution, and who’s as unwavering and solid as the joint’s walls. Ebon Moss-Bachrach plays the opposite of his John Carreyrou in Hulu’s The Dropout — here he’s Richie Jerimovich, a lovable brute who cosplays as an Italian and gets into Worldstar-style fights with staff. “Y’know he’s not even Italian, right? 100 percent Polish. Fuckin’ insulting,” Richie shouts at Carmen about a passerby in episode four. “You know you’re not even Italian, right?” Carmen shoots back.
But the real heart of the show is Sydney Adamu (Ayo Edebiri), who begins as a beautifully-bandanaed stage, a kitchen intern who recently graduated culinary school. It’s through her work that we can see any hope for the future of this Italian beef joint or fine dining itself. The show pokes fun at, but doesn’t invalidate, the haute cuisine world. Richie manhandles a Noma cookbook like a toy; the back-of-house doesn’t understand what staging means; and Sydney wipes down even her family-meal deli containers like she’s serving guests, a telling detail. Things are serious, but not too serious. And while the restaurant is chaotic, Sydney calls out that hierarchical fine-dining kitchen structures can be just as unsustainable and mean — she brings a fantastic critique of the French brigade system.
Given the chaos, anytime we’re left on a shot too long, you might find yourself cringing (will someone cut themselves?) or amazed (how did they get so many bodies and hot plates squeezed into such a tight space?). But the series thrives on montage, showing a mastery of how to establish environment and pace through rapid, claustrophobic shots lit with yellow heat lamps, green halogens, and the blue neon of Norwegian knock-off arcade games.This is the third time members of this crew have crafted such an honest, youthful perspective on a changing American metropolis—show creator Christopher Storer did the same for NYC in Ramy, while executive producer Hiro Murai captured vibrant city life on Atlanta. At times, The Bear can seem like it’s trying too hard to prove its Chicago or dramatic bona fides, as when characters ridicule ketchuped hot dogs, or when Carmen’s unique bad habit is revealed (sleep cooking! Ooh, spooky and unnecessary). But these are blips in what is, overall, a high-strung and well-seasoned show. All eight episodes stream June 23 on Hulu.