Why "The Bear" Works
Spoiler-free thoughts on Hulu's hit show
Hulu has a hit. Why is it that every streaming service from Netflix (The Crown), Apple TV (Ted Lasso), Max (The Last of Us), and Prime Video (The Boys) has exactly one show I can’t do without? It’s almost as if there’s a global conspiracy to make sure every option has one great show to ensure that we plebians keep on paying for all of them. But I digress.
“The Bear” tells the story of Carmen Berzatto, aka Carmy, aka Bear, who is one of the world’s up-and-coming chefs. He worked at Noma and some of the other best restaurants in the world, but leaves it all behind to run a slapdash beef sandwich joint that his now-dead brother left to him. Hilarity does not always ensue. Although classified as a comedy for awards shows, it toes the drama-comedy line. Along with “Succession”, “The Bear” does a great job straddling this line, with a drama-based narrative punctuated by hilarious, often darkly hilarious, one-liners and short bits. At any rate, the formula works. “The Bear” recently won several Golden Globes, including for Best Comedy Series and Best Actor, and is up for several Emmys. Along with critical acclaim, the public like “The Bear” as well. The show is one of the most streamed in America. So what are the keys to success?
First, like many shows in our golden age of television, production value is high. Gone are the days of constant camera shots from the same viewpoint. “The Bear” intermittently uses wide shots of Chicago om contrast with close shots of the main characters in the chaotic kitchen. The disparity helps make the kitchen feel claustrophobic. Combined with a good score, the viewer is thrown into the insanity of a bustling restaurant kitchen. The constant sounds of tickets printing and cooks moving and music blaring and fires burning and people shouting and food cooking all combine into one blood-pressure-raising experience. I’ve never seen any scenes of any series, even those set in burning buildings or emergency rooms, successfully create such tension and feelings of anxiety.
The use of the city of Chicago as an additional character is also welcome. The creator of “The Bear”, Christopher Storer, is from a suburb of America’s second city, and his sister is a chef, and he draws on his background knowledge to great effect. Instead of just placing the show in Chicago and adding B-roll film of the city’s attractions, the show focuses on the streets of Chicago. Rather than drone shots of Millennium Park and the Lakefront, the show is filled with shots of the “L” train and neighborhood streets. I especially liked the emphasis on Chicago winters, which seemingly do not exist in much of the media set in the city. Some of the jokes and dialogue require real knowledge of Chicago culture, my favorite being a gut-busting dual-dialogue bit about bears (the animal) and Steve “Mongo” McMichael, a player from the 1985 Bears Super Bowl team.
The casting is excellent. Jeremy Allen White is perfect as a chef who is both up-and-coming but filled with doubt and insecurity. Ayo Edebiri shines as a young chef who hasn’t made it to the big time yet, full of talent but green around the gills. As one would expect in a Chicago kitchen, there are a lot of different cultures and backgrounds in a confined space. The diverse cast meld together seamlessly and interacts in a way that isn’t pro-woke or anti-woke but pre-woke. “The Bear” isn’t blind to demographic differences, but doesn’t pander either. A character’s race, gender, and background are aspects of their character, not the essence of it. It would behoove other writers to take note of this approach.
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“The Bear” is not perfect. Overall, the writing is inspired but is, at times, uneven. The narrative and dialogue aren’t quite as clean as “Succession”. Most of the jokes land, but some fall flat. Some of the show's subplots are told in a choppy manner, especially as each character is given at least a bit of background. At times the narrative is caught in between giving each character an episode and constantly switching between them. In general, the story flows well, but occasionally gets stuck. It’s a small complaint, but does prevent some episodes from being quite where they could be.
What makes “The Bear” special, and what I think makes it resonate with so many viewers, is its drive for excellence. Both the series itself, and the characters within it, share a refreshing approach to being the best they can be. For the showrunners, this means bumping the lamp. Sure they’ve nailed how to recreate the chaos of a cramped and crowded restaurant kitchen better than anyone. But have they done an episode that consists of an 18-minute-long continuous shot of a restaurant crew imploding under pressure? An 18-minute shot! One with actors coming in and out of different rooms, people cooking and shouting and food being prepped?
There’s no reason to do it. The same feel could be recreated via several shots that are each a few minutes long. But the writers wanted to try it, and in doing so they made the most memorable episode of a series filled with memorable episodes. The cast and crew did four full takes and two that were stopped due to errors, and then they didn’t use the most perfect. Instead, in a bit of inspired thinking, the showrunners used the one that was the most intense and immersive. The result is 18 minutes of building pressure that ends leaving the viewer exhausted. Doing a single 18-minute long take wasn’t even the plan when the episode was written. Instead, it occurred to the crew that the chaos they wanted to the viewer to feel would be best captured if it was done in real-time, and they successfully created something special.
The use of guest stars also showcases this pursuit to be the best, both in their casting and the product these A-listers deliver. One episode in Season 2 is a flashback, set several years before the first episode of the series. Bob Odenkirk plays a truly intimidating uncle, while John Mulaney sheds his pretty-boy schtick and successfully plays an in-law trying his best to de-escalate a family that only goes the opposite direction. In another episode, Olivia Coleman also shows up in a surprisingly quiet scene and adds some sentimentality and depth to my favorite installments of the series. Using great actors in small but meaningful roles helps elevate the entire show.
The fictional characters the cast plays share this drive for excellence. All their characters slowly buy into the idea that they should be the best they can be. It’s present down to the selection of plates and seating charts. The cooking of the perfect meal. Even the reading material of Chef Sydney hints at her personal passion - Coach K’s book Leading with the Heart is referenced several times, Coach K being a Chicago native and a paragon of excellence himself. The pursuit of excellence is strong, even though the entire kitchen crew is far from perfect. They are human in every sense of the word. Their progress, like progress in real life, is uneven. Sometimes one step forward precedes two steps back. There aren’t any character arcs that are one-way. Instead, each person slowly buys into what Carmen is building in fits and starts.
“The Bear” has heart like “Schitt’s Creek”, production values like “The Crown”, and great comedy like “Ted Lasso”, but the commitment to excellence is its own. “The Bear” isn’t about a pursuit to change the world. None of the characters are going to win the English Premier League or rule the world or be the world’s best surgeon or work in the world’s best restaurant. They aren’t even trying to create Chicago’s best restaurant. Even if the characters aren’t the best fathers or sons or friends or people, they are buying into the idea that committing to running the best possible kitchen is a worthwhile pursuit. That, at least in their place of work, they should be excellent. It’s a message worth hearing.