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The Bear is the Best Television Series of 2023

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I know, I know, Succession. And look, I do not watch Succession, so I suppose I can’t definitively say that The Bear is the better show. But I’ve also been following the Golden Age of the TV antihero going all the way back to The Sopranos, and I cannot for the life of me imagine, more than twenty years into that aesthetic movement, signing up for yet another show with the general theme of “are these bad people, in fact, bad? [forty hours later] Yes, actually”.

The Bear is not bereft of badness and negativity. It’s a show about anxiety, about stress, about addiction and family trauma and people yelling at each other all the time. But it’s also a show about people who are making something, and though that making, changing themselves. It’s about the joy of creativity and creative labor, and how that joy can nevertheless lead to life-destroying, soul-killing stress. I’m sure I would have liked Succession if I’d watched it, but I can’t imagine preferring its stagnancy to The Bear‘s forward motion.

The first season of The Bear introduced us to Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), a burned-out, anxiety-ridden, Michelin-rated chef who has worked at (and overseen) some of the best restaurants in the world, who returns to his native Chicago following the death by suicide of his older brother Mikey (Jon Bernthal) to take over the family sandwich shop. Throughout the season, Carmy tries to make sense of his fraught relationship with Mikey, who suffered from emotional issues and drug addiction, while also struggling to contain the barely suppressed chaos of a working but largely dysfunctional kitchen, and to make improvements to both its methods and products. This leads to clashes with Mikey’s business partner Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), the brothers’ childhood friend, who (persuasively, if rather obnoxiously) argues that there is no need to elevate the humble, satisfying dish that is the Italian beef sandwich, and with new chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), who keeps running ahead with elaborate, mouth-watering new dishes while Carmy remains uncertain about what he wants for himself and the restaurant.

Season two feels less like a continuation of this story than a sequel. If the first season was about processing the immediate shock of Mikey’s death, the second is about taking a step forward from it, as Carmy and Sydney decide to close the sandwich shop and open a fine dining establishment—named, of course, The Bear—in its place. It is, in other words, a classic “let’s put on a show” premise, and many of the season’s set pieces revolve around the challenges, setbacks, and triumphs of this process: discovering that what was meant to be a facelift of the restaurant space will actually end up being a full gut-and-remodel; chasing after suppliers and equipment; navigating the labyrinth of licensing and accreditation; scrambling to find staff who know what they’re doing but aren’t scared of joining a new, uncertain venture.

One of the things that make The Bear remarkable is how much its success comes down not to new ideas or formal innovation, but top-notch execution. To knowing how to seed, complicate, and resolve each of these challenges in a way that feels at once overwhelming and exhilarating. To weaving together a dozen plot strands and character moments in a symphony of crosstalk, raised voices, and constant freakouts that nevertheless come together into a coherent, comprehensible whole. To creating the impression that each of the show’s characters, families, and institutions has a rich history and shared commonplace, without drowning the audience with backstory. To crafting satisfying, self-contained episodes (a nearly lost art in today’s television landscape) that both advance the season’s ticking-clock progress towards the restaurant’s opening, and offer bite-sized departures from it—a sojourn in Copenhagen for pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce); a week staging in one of the top restaurants in Chicago for Richie; and, in the season’s undeniable, queasy highlight, a flashback to the Berzatto family Christmas five years ago that lays bare the family’s many dysfunctions and traumas.

The season’s dominant tone is of mingled joy and terror. Everyone is excited by the possibilities of a new project, but they’re all also aware what a precarious, uncertain proposition it is. The season is an exploration of all of the reasons that opening a restaurant is an objectively insane thing to do—it’s an absurdly competitive business, where most ventures fail, where a single lukewarm review or half-full week can spell disaster, and where even in stratospheric success, the profit margins are nonexistent.

Each of the Bear’s staff ends up struggling with anxiety over the project. Carmy, who has convinced himself that he can’t perform at an elite level while also having a happy personal life, reconnects with a high school sweetheart and ends up neglecting the restaurant in the rush of a new infatuation. Sydney, who has already lost one business venture, veers wildly between concocting ever more elaborate, impractical menus, and worrying that the whole thing is doomed to failure. Loud-mouthed blowhard Richie worries that he has no value in the restaurant’s new incarnation. And sandwich shop holdovers Tina (Lisa Colón-Zayas) and Ebrahim (Edwin Lee Gibson), who have been sent to culinary school to learn the skills they’ll need in a very different sort of kitchen, worry about reinventing themselves in middle age. Characters like Carmy’s Uncle Jimmy (Oliver Platt in a performance that is nothing short of a revelation), who puts up the money for the remodel, and Sydney’s father Emanuel (Robert Townsend) repeatedly give voice to fears about what this project’s failure could mean for our heroes’ future stability, both financial and emotional.

At the same time, part of the genius of The Bear is that it leaves you in no doubt why its characters nevertheless continue in this mad pursuit. With every scene it conveys their love of food, their excitement at being able to test and refine their skills, and their ideas for what the restaurant could be. Like the best “let’s put on a show” stories, it is infectious in its exuberance. You walk away wanting to make something, anything, merely in order to share in the characters’ joy of creation.

More importantly, the season persuasively argues for the meaningfulness of this endeavor. Last year’s The Menu was a litany of all the things that are wrong with fine dining: the vast amounts of money needed to stay afloat that mean the entire industry is, like so many other creative fields, in hock to Wall Street; invasive, demanding customers who book a table merely as an elite status marker; the worship of superstar chefs that encourages abuse and mistreatment in the kitchen. The Bear is, in contrast, a love letter to the kind of people who dedicate themselves to making and serving excellent food. When Marcus and Richie visit some of the world’s best restaurants, they meet chefs who espouse not the bullying, alpha male mentality we tend to associate with haute cuisine kitchens, but humility, mindfulness, and a quiet, egoless drive towards constant improvement. As Richie is told, the essence of a restaurant is service and hospitality, making people happy with the gift of an unforgettable meal.

(As if to add a splash of acid to cut through that sweetness, the season also pokes gentle fun at the way that such moments of revelation and presence get laundered into self-help platitudes. Richie is a new man after his restaurant experience, but he expresses this by using Buddhist parables to motivate the Bear’s waitstaff. And Sydney spends the season drawing inspiration from a Chicago basketball coach’s biography, trying to paper over her anxiety with adages from the sports world.)

That sense of mingled joy and terror that defines the season persists all the way to the finale, in which the restaurant’s opening night is both a triumph—the food is delicious, the customers are satisfied, and after a few hiccups, the kitchen settles into a stately dance—and a disaster, with Richie, Sydney, and especially Carmy remaining in the grips of profound anxiety over the new path they’ve chosen. The real question at the heart of The Bear isn’t whether its characters can survive in the cutthroat world of fine dining or achieve a longed-for Michelin star, but whether they can do those things while still holding on to their humanity, their friendship, and their love for their chosen field. It’s a show about trying to become better—a better chef, a better boss, and a better human being.

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