If you’re one of the many people who’ve tuned into FX’s surprise TV hit The Bear, you may be wondering why you keep coming back. The show, which follows an NYC prestige culinary kitchen dropout who returns to run the family Chicago beef joint, drops viewers in the middle of a rough and tumble Windy City back of house joint and doesn’t let up. With frenetic editing, motormouth dialogue and Carmy’s (Jeremy Allen White) sky high standards, the show has viewers digging their nails into their knees almost instantly.
Carmy lost his brother to suicide, and is determined to honor the memory by transforming his restaurant into something special. But the staff have their own way of doing things, and this immediately sets up an ongoing explosion of conflict that sets every minor disagreement on a breakneck pace for catastrophe. Ambitious, talented new hire Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) is peddling fast, but it’s one thing to keep up with a demanding new boss. It’s a whole lot more to keep up with a roller coaster work atmosphere that expects you to keep performing with excellence even as you run headlong into one obstacle after another.
Much of this rests on the cast’s performances, and they all prove equal to the challenge. White, who you may have seen on Shameless, provides an interesting twist on the dark antihero so popular on TV over the last decade. The Bear wisely resists the temptation to make him an irresistibly appealing genius with a dark side. Carmy is more withdrawn than winsome, largely keeping his stress bottled up inside even as everyone else’s fuse is reaching the powder. It’s as much Edebiri’s show as it is his, and she is the picture of ambition; always almost out of her depth.
If you’ve worked in a kitchen before, this might all strike you as a little too familiar. In fact, The Bear is liable to trigger some unpleasant memories for people of pretty much any background. Carmy’s personal demons go beyond grieving his brother (played in flashbacks by the always welcome Jon Bernthal) — he recognizes the same propensity for addiction in himself, a propensity he keeps at bay with regular AA meetings at the local AME Church. He also is wrestling with the trauma of the New York restaurant he left, where his old boss (Joel McHale) subjected him to a daily torrent of verbal abuse. And then there’s the money problems, including $30,000 of debt Carmy inherited from his late brother.
It is a lot to take in, but The Bear is smart enough to let up just after viewers may have reached their breaking point, mercifully inserting moments of warmth, grace and triumph. Kind-hearted baker Marcus (Lionel Boyce) is inspired by the new standards to push himself creatively, while Sydney finds the inner strength to assert herself. Even the foul-mouthed, defiantly obnoxious Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) is unmasked as a big-hearted family man.
And family really is the name of the game in The Bear. The show understands the bonds that stress can manufacture; the intoxicating nature of unhealthy work environments among beleaguered employees who can’t turn to anyone but each other. The “family meal” they all share before opening the doors every day provides some of the series’ most gracious moments. It’s these bits of reprieve, like the lulls in a rollercoaster ride, that keep you coming back.
One thing workplace comedies and dramas usually understand is how jobs bring people together who wouldn’t otherwise be friends. It’s hard to imagine Jim and Dwight ever interacting if they hadn’t met at Dunder-Mifflin. It’s unlikely that Janine would ever interact with Ava if not for Abbott Elementary. But it’s not just proximity that brings these people together. It’s either the shared sense of purpose (in Abbott Elementary) or, as often as not, a common enemy (in The Office) that draws these strange characters to opening up with each other, sharing their lives and sometimes even falling in love. (Another show that explored this idea from a very different angle this year: Apple TV Plus’ Severance).
In The Bear, the staff truly does want to create a special dining experience for their guests. They disagree — violently, sometimes – about the right way to do it. But they can never fully hate each other because, for better or worse, they’ve been drawn together by the work. They feel a sense of loyalty to each other. The Bear knows that this isn’t always healthy — how many of us have stayed in a bad job out of some misbegotten sense of loyalty? — but it does happen.
It was hard for this viewer to not think of churches. How many pastors have been in Carmy’s shoes — excited to start a new kind of church only to be instantly frustrated by expectations, tradition and the simple realities of budgets? They start hedging their dreams and compromising where they can. They may end up with a very different church than they’d hoped for. But if it ends up uniting the people within it, who’s to say it didn’t become the church it was supposed to be?
This isn’t to make excuses for toxicity, which this show does not do. But it does peel back the layers on the stress of our jobs, and mine the endless complexity underneath for some insights there. We may dream of beautiful jobs where we spend our days with our best friends building things we’re proud of, but the reality is rarely so simple. What we have instead are jobs — difficult, demanding jobs — and the beautiful, complicated people we do those jobs alongside. People who love and hurt and stumble and laugh just as much as we do. And any job that brings you a little closer to these people can’t be all bad.
Even if it is, sometimes, very stressful.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.