Is there anything more Chicago than images of perfectly seasoned meat being cooked for an Italian beef, the city’s swankiest sandwich, set to “Via Chicago” by Wilco, the city’s swaggering band? In the case of FXs The bear, actually, yeah, sort of: for that location-specific bit of food and ear porn in the pilot, two dudes, one of them with the Chicago area code “773” tattooed on his left biceps, give each other shit in front of other very Chicago signifiers : a billboard advertising Malört, a truly awful drink, and an illuminated sign for Vienna Beef, the maker of some really great hot dogs. The city floats above The bear everywhere, whether it be someone complaining that the neighborhoods “Pilsen, Wicker” [Park]and Logan [Square]’ have become ‘shit’, or how two characters in particular spit out syllables with just the right attitude and non-cartoonish Chicago accents.
But the most egregious reference to the city-as-character moment is kept until the opening of episode seven, when Lin Brehmer, the morning host of local radio station WXRT, introduces Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago,” noting that “while you have heard all roads lead to Rome, some roads lead from Chicago.” The demo version of the song starts with heavy acoustic strumming before Stevens’ delicate delivery takes center stage, and we’re struck by a montage of city life: water towers and the skyline and traffic and beautiful architecture and the El and side streets captured on a morning commute and even the Superdawg Drive- In (coincidentally the location of a Wilco photo shoot for To spin† Then it goes for it, and some of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the city’s history are thrown in: the campaign of Barack Obama, Al Capone, and police brutality during the ’68 Democratic National Convention, just to name a few. to name.
If that all sounds a bit much, like too much of a jump for what is apparently a very funny (though also very dark) show about the goings on at a mom-and-pop restaurant, it’s strangely not. (And if you have any connection to that city, you might scoff at the description above – that Sufjan song? Would they to be more on the nose? — but honestly, the effect is touching.) The bear has that rare ability to set the tone on a dime without feeling like it’s stretching, manipulating, or undeserved, with a comedy bit about accidentally nailing the Ecto Cooler at a kid’s party being followed one minute by a emotionally guarded, extreme Chicago man telling a tear-eyed story about a deceased relative the next.
But back to that other guy, the one with the Chicago tattoo. That’s Carmy (shamelessJeremy Allen White, who gave a pretty remarkable performance and looked like this with that blurry-eyes-grease-hair-in-need-from-a-cigarette-break thing, even if he’s odd enough for a guy who runs a greasy spoon ). He was a piping hot chef in New York and was named the best young chef of the year (or something) by Food and wine, as well as earning a James Beard Award. Now, after an uproar in his family, he’s back in Chicago to run their restaurant, a River North staple called the Original Beef of Chicagoland. (A very minor complaint here: no place in Chicago is said to have “Chicagoland” in the name of their restaurant, as it indicates the suburbs. But we assume they had to for disputed reasons. Anyway.) Plus, he’s there to improve and “elevate” their game, as a Food and wine critic might write, a timeless, classless meal.
None of this fits his cousin well, but not technically cousin – Richy (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, who gives a fantastic, hilarious twist with motor mouth), an Energizer Bunny of a family friend and a general bastard who has little else but the Beef to keep him steady. There are too many good deliveries from Moss-Bachrach – who plays one of those characters who gets the Chicago accent without falling into caricature, the kind of guy who throws “sweetheart” unironically, but here’s one:
“I can’t believe I’m taking orders from a fuck toddler now. All my life I had to listen to everyone who worried about him all the time. “He’s a baby. Don’t get Carmine in trouble.’ You know? I was once a baby too, Sydney. Nobody gave a fuck.”
And what the hell, here’s another one, one of the many comedic rat-a-tat exchanges between him and Carmy:
“Bull shit. That bastard is complete fucking bullshit.”
“Perfect timing, I…”
‘Who does he think he is? You know he’s not even Italian, right? One hundred percent Polish. Damned insulting.”
“You know you’re not even Italian, right?”
“More Italian than that man is.”
Speaking of Sydney (Ayo Edebiri, also excellent and sort of the show’s anchor), it’s the young aspiring chef’s relationship with Carmy that The bear‘s attention. Like Carmy, she attended the Culinary Institute of America. Like him, she has an impressive resume, biting her teeth at local favorites Smoque BBQ and Alinea. Like him, she’s incredibly ambitious, taking over the kitchen as a sous chef and wriggling the sloppy group of employees into a work order comparable to that of a fine-dining kitchen, most notably Marcus (Lionel Boyce) who gets the confectioner’s bug. And just like Carmy, her mentor (in this case†Carmy) can be an asshole, rejecting great ideas and meeting up when there are real problems to deal with.
The rest of the cast is also top notch, both in the kitchen (Liza Colón-Zayas as a skeptic who has been throwing sandwiches around at the Beef for decades, as a consulting producer, chef and Shame personality Matty Matheson, who’s a not-quite-on-payroll) and off it (Abby Elliott as Carmy’s concerned sister and Chris Witaske as her awkwardly nice Midwesterner husband).
A word of warning, though: do yourself a favor and give The bear at least two episodes before passing judgment. That’s hardly a knock on the pilot, but it dumps you into a work environment that’s so intense and chaotic and cramped that it takes some time to get your bearings and see the show and its characters beyond the chaos and flashbacks. Once you get used to it, The bear becomes something of a miracle, a show with its own rhythm and with characters that you generally want to be with, even if they lose it. That penultimate episode, the same one with the moving montage intro set to Sufjan, ends with one of the most impressive directorial feats I’ve seen on television this year: a 10-minute single-shot climax that winds through the constricted kitchen like anything. falls apart and characters collide, this one also featuring Wilco’s soundtrack (a wild live jam from “Spiders” [Kidsmoke]”), which might be appropriate: this show, like that band, like that humble sandwich, can hold crowds.