The Bear’s Groundbreaking Invention of the TV Culinary Drama

On September 21, 1957, CBS broadcasted the first episode of Perry Mason,  creating the blueprint for legal drama television series as we know them today. Popular and critically acclaimed programs such as Suits, Better Call Saul, and Law & Order would have been impossible without Perry Mason’s groundbreaking precedent. On June 23, 2022, The Bear premiered on FX and inaugurated its own genre: the culinary television drama. Although programs inspired by The Bear have yet to appear (after all, it hasn’t even been four months), there will undoubtedly be small screen projects aiming to recreate the show’s tragicomic intensity in the near future. 

I must acknowledge that, while The Bear is groundbreaking for the television medium, the concept of the culinary drama isn’t exactly new. Indeed, over the past decade, numerous culinary films were released with varied results—many of them ranked somewhere in between the schmaltzy-yet-harmless Hundred-Step Journey and the pathetically self-serious Burnt. Ultimately, The Bear succeeds because—much like Jon Favreau’s Chef—it postulates the chef-artist without engaging in the nauseating hero-worship of Hell’s Kitchen, Beat Bobby Flay, and Iron Chef America. Furthermore, its creator,Christopher Storer, does a commendable job of celebrating the diverse, blue-collar workers of the restaurant industry, thus avoiding the affected cliches of The British Baking Show and its ilk. 

The series itself focuses on Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) and his efforts to reinvigorate his family’s rundown restaurant—The Original Beef of Chicagoland—after the suicide of his charismatic, yet troubled, older brother Michael “Mikey” Berzatto (Jon Bernthal). Despite his illustrious credentials and fine-dining experience, Carmy struggles to earn the respect of his brother’s best friend, Richie Jerimovich (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and the rest of the stubborn, working-class kitchen staff. Carmy’s James Beard Award and his sous chef Sydney Adamu’s (Ayo Edebiri) Culinary Institute of America degree are not enough to endear them to Mikey’s faithful employees. Carmy realizes that in order to redeem The Original Beef, he cannot simply overhaul the whole system; instead, he must inspire his employees to reach their full potential. Ultimately, it is a story both hilarious and earnest which depicts the kitchen for what all former restaurant employees know it to be: a family. 

Like in all families, however, there is considerable dysfunction in the claustrophobic confines of The Original Beef. As a former line cook at Little Moss and Davoll’s Cafe, I could scarcely watch during the opening scene to the first episode when Carmy and his staff frantically prepare for dinner service. I was similarly distressed watching Carmy, in episode seven, realize that Sydney left on the pre-order option overnight, sentencing the kitchen to the Sisyphean task of fulfilling hundreds of orders. I must admit, however, that I also found solace in recognizing the peculiar camaraderie of restaurants which I have been lucky to experience for the past two summers. Whether it be Marcus (Lionel Boyce) helping Sydney clean up a catastrophic spill, Tina (Liza Colon-Zayas) finally accepting Sydney, or the whole staff gathering to share “family meal,” it was touching to see my experiences of familial restaurant culture affirmed on television. 
 So far The Bear has received rave reviews, and I hope that it maintains its cultural cachet through the content-glut of the holiday season and into the New Year. By positioning The Bear as a television tragi-comedy a lá Succession and Fleabag, Christopher Storer opens a world of possibilities for the culinary drama. The on-screen representation of service workers’ dedication will hopefully inspire real-world action in raising the minimum wage, recognizing the profession’s dignity, and quashing poor customer behavior. Because, after all, is there a greater character-red-flag than someone who yells at the server?

Cover photo courtesy of Los Angeles Times