Don’t Just Poke THE BEAR. Embrace It!

Whenever FX drops something anywhere the tentacles of its brand, now nearly three decades evolved, extends, I sit up and take notice.  I have way too much history and fond memories of my association with their braintrust, many of whom are STILL winning awards and greenlighting history in a business that has accelerated firings and layoffs to a dizzying pace to not expect at least something worth sampling, if not fully indulging in.   Their batting average is a whole lot better than many of its competitors, and sometimes they even surprise themselves when something resonates that hadn’t been counted on to do so.

That appears to have been the case with THE BEAR, a budget-friendly half-hour that dropped last summer on FX on Hulu, arguably the iteration with the least potential viewership.   Regardless of what version of subscription tracking you want to believe, far fewer households can receive Hulu than can the mothership FX or its secondary channel FXX, which has been the home of many of the network’s other half-hours.   And even the FX on Hulu strategy, which at times has given that platform content and relevance that its own dedicated staff has frequently whiffed on, wasa year ago emphasizing Emmy-chasing shows like THE OLD MAN which amplify and extend their linear network schedules with buzzworthy shows that disproportionately appeal to lighter-viewing cord-cutters and cord-nevers.  By many accounts, THE BEAR was supposed to be a creative roll of the dice with its creator and driving force, Christopher Storer, that was ordered to series as much for its affordability, mostly being shot on location in the gentrifying Chicago neighborhood where Storer spent time in a similar hard-scrabble restaurant to the one that serves as the series’ initial focus (THE BEEF), as it was for its comedy.  With the exception of guest stars and the winsome Abby Elliott as a co-star, the cast was largely unknown a year ago.

Well, they’re very much known now, and they’ve elevated their performances to far greater levels than they hit in Season 1.  And while the timing of both seasons’ premieres means the show has yet to be eligible for Emmys, they’ve already received numerous other accolades. especially for its compelling and yes, grittingly thirst-trap worthy lead, Jeremy Allen White.  White’s portrayal as a reluctant award-winning New York City chef who comes back to his hometown to run the Italian beef restaurant his brother accumulated massive debt and had little staff support with, contributing to his suicide.  White spent most of Season 1 adjusting to his more blue-collar surroundings, especially bonding with his earnest yet inexperienced sous chef, played by Ayo Edibiri.  White and Edibiri have already earned Critic’s Choice Award nominations, with White emerging as a winner.  In Season 2, circumstances that resulted in the closure of THE BEEF are now leading White’s Carmy character (whose nickname is the show’s title) into the launch of an eponymous, more upscale replacement.

And you be very hard-pressed to find anything other than rave reviews that have proliferated over the last few days and are accelerating after yesterday’s full drop of Season 2.  And you sure won’t find anything but praise here.  At 10 half-hour-ish episodes and with its fast pace, it’s especially bingeable and addicting, and this year’s setup, as THE WRAP’s Brandon Wu raves, is an immediate sign that this show, much like many others in FX’s history, only improve with age:

There’s a convenient little portrait of exactly how “The Bear” has progressed, and what it’s pulled off, in the first shot of the Season 2 finale. The episode opens with a virtuosic, 12-minute long take that is, intentionally, a rejoinder to the 18-minute single take from the first season’s penultimate episode. Whereas the Season 1 shot maneuvered through the crumbling hellscape that is the sandwich shop known as The Beef, this one weaves through the carefully controlled chaos and polished corners of the newly opened, high-end establishment The Bear.  

But in a season that is in many ways a complete, daring reinvention of “The Bear” — remarkably, after being the sleeper hit of last summer — the places that are most telling about the show’s evolution are far quieter.  In other words, this new season of “The Bear” is tearing it all down, literally and otherwise; a remodel that allows for big and small swings that mostly result in the show cementing itself as one of the best on TV.

And Peter Travers, who despite being in the employ of corporate sibling GOOD MORNING, AMERICA I take at face value, offers further justified gushing:

Emmy voters would be nuts not to recognize that this raging, roaring bonfire of a series—the “Succession” of chef shows—deserves a shower of awards for taking us inside the pressure cooker of a Chicago restaurant running against the clock and the threat of financial ruin.

But it’s the more cerebral and nuanced take of HuffPost’s Marina Fang that I found myself echoing most:

There’s something deeply satisfying about a second season of a TV series that fulfills the promise of what a Season 2 should do: Recapture what made the first season great while adding something new and perhaps complicating the show’s initial premise.

It’s easier said than done, and FX’s “The Bear” set a pretty high bar for itself. Last summer, the comedy series depicting the staff of an Italian beef joint in Chicago turned into a word-of-mouth hit. Restaurant jargon from the show — like, “Yes, chef!” and “Corner!” — became part of the pop culture lexicon. And the series inspired articles praising its accurate depictions of toxic workplaces and the high-octane stress of working in restaurants.  (T)he show becomes richer and contains more depth, like a memorable dish that’s had time to marinate. While the frenetic pace of Season 1 was thrilling in the way it captured the chaos of restaurant life, the slower pace of this new season allows us to savor each bite and digest the show more fully,

While the execution and depth of this show is a polar opposite to the freshmanic zaniness of the FX-verse’s most enduring comedy, IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA, the underdog backstories of how they overachieved even internal expectations are similar.  SUNNY, as most people know, was never supposed to be the hit that it was, essentially ordered to fill out a one-hour block whose anchor was a cerebral and ambitious effort from a more storied New York-based indie actor and producer, Eric Schaeffer, who explored the word of weight-loss with a now-forgotten effort, STARVED, whose tone is one that THE BEAR has more of a connection to.  But perseverance, relatability and the presence of a really pretty blonde co-star (sorry, but both Abby Elliott and Kaitlin Olsen are most definitely my type) seem to be the ingredients for a really successful recipe.  And, in the case of THE BEAR, the more ambitious plot lines that eventually involve global travel and the introduction of more of the protagonists’ families, including some breakout guest performances from the likes of Oliver Platt, Jamie Lee Curtis and Robert Townsend, among others, much like the menu for THE BEAR is looking to reflect more of the upscale New York world that Carmy left behind, its appeal is now as broad as the shoulders of the city that the show pays loving homage to in every episode’s opening.

SUNNY is still going strong 18 years after its afterthought of a premiere, and is a major reason FXX even exists.  It wouldn’t surprise me if, assuming they want to, THE BEAR might be around just as long, even if Hulu itself is not.  It’s hard not to root for all of these characters, and it’s harder not to salivate when you see how good the food looks.  Whether you’re going to sit down for a 10-course meal, or a few shorter snacks as I am, most definitely make room on your plates for THE BEAR. and for that matter FX and Hulu, this summer.  And then sit back whenever the Emmys do occur and know you’ll likely be cheering for many of those you’ve just watched and appreciated, and know that what you just saw is likely to be even more honored next fall.

Until next time…

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