Summer TV just got hotter with the arrival of The Bear.
The FX show is about a talented chef named Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, whose thriving career takes a backseat when he returns to his hometown of Chicago after losing his brother Michael to suicide. Carmy, played by the incredible Jeremy Allen White, is left to deal with the tragedy, while also inheriting the massive responsibility of running his family’s sandwich shop—The Original Beef of Chicagoland.
It doesn’t happen often that a show grabs my attention within its first five minutes the way The Bear did. How a show kicks things off sets the tone for things to come, and this opening scene was all I needed to know that I was staying on for this ride. The show starts with a dreamlike sequence where Carmy comes face-to-face with a caged brown bear on a bridge over the Chicago River. The bear suddenly attacks him and he wakes up in the middle of the shop’s kitchen. Dreams have been tools that other great shows like Atlanta (Hiro Murai is also an executive producer on The Bear) and The Sopranos have used to tell their story in the past, so things are already off to a good start.
While The Bear’s first season hit Hulu on June 23, the show premiered its first two episodes at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York on June 12. Complex caught up with the cast and the creators on the red carpet, and when asked about the show’s opening scene, the series co-showrunner and writer Joanna Calo says the purpose was to engage viewers enough to make them put their phones down. “You have to trick people into watching more!” Calo tells Complex with a laugh. “So much of this show is influenced by film, by great old movies and I think that idea of just grabbing you right away—I’m joking about tricking you—but it is a way to let people know you’re going to want to sit down for this and pay attention.”
White also opened up about filming this scene. “It’s a cool opening. I saw the most recent cut of Episode 1 and there’s this sound effect that wasn’t there before of a burner struggling to get on, which I thought was really nice,” the show’s star tells Complex. “We shot that scene all through the night. We shut down this bridge on a major cross street in downtown Chicago. We had a wonderful stuntman wearing a bear head and they made it look incredible. It looks special. It gets me excited every time I see the beginning of the episode.”
The actor headed back to Chicago to film this new series after starring in Showtime’s Shameless for 11 seasons as Lip Gallagher. “I love that city so much,” he said about working there again. “If you’re going to be stuck somewhere, at least it’s Chicago. It was interesting too because it’s a different version of Chicago. The focus of this show is so much food and so I had all these amazing experiences. I went to a couple of really amazing restaurants, so day to day it was way different than it was on Shameless.” White effortlessly carried the Showtime show when Emmy Rossum left after Season 9, and he does the same in The Bear, making Carmy one of the most compelling characters currently on TV.
Carmy’s anxiety-riddled dreams come from the pressures of maintaining a small restaurant while repressing his own feelings, internal troubles, and the pain of losing his brother. He doesn’t have much space or time to process his grief while attempting to keep the business afloat, all while working alongside a defiant kitchen staff (which is made up of some vibrant characters) that make his job even harder. “Carmy is going home and facing a lot of the things he’s been running away from for a long time,” he says. “That’s what really struck me about the character and the show, which is really interesting to me. A character has just gone through the most traumatic [moment] of his life and then has to come home and face all these ghosts. It makes for a really great drama, and comedy as well.”
The Bear is about food, family, and the insanity that goes on behind the scenes to operate restaurants. There is a sense of urgency, stress and apprehension that’s felt throughout each episode, and the tension rarely ever dissipates, even during the show’s quieter moments. There’s a sense of inner turmoil that overwhelms the characters, as they all are dealing with their own problems and consternation about who they are, their careers, and where they are headed. “This show is, yes, it’s about a kitchen,” Calo adds. “But it’s really about what’s inside these characters and the larger things they’re dealing with and for Carmy, it’s his family and all of the demons that have haunted him for a long time.”
The storyline of running a small business is also extremely timely. The Washington Post recently estimated that around 70,000 restaurants and bars shut down in 2020 likely due to the pandemic. While the show doesn’t really mention COVID-19, many people could relate to the struggles the characters face when trying to run a small business. “This idea of trying to survive in a business is also something that a lot of us, especially in the restaurant business, those people are hanging on by a thread,” Calo says. “It feels like an interesting time to also talk about how these businesses work and how they survive. Hopefully, people can connect with the stakes of brokenness, dealing with your family, and returning home, whether it be because of failure or illness or death or comfort.”
Director Christopher Storer brought in Canadian chef Matty Matheson as co-producer, and the chef is also making his acting debut as handyman Neil Frank on the show. Matheson was tasked with the responsibility of maintaining the authenticity of what it is like to work in a kitchen, making the actors’ cooking skills and the details of how the restaurant industry functions look believable.
Matheson also understands firsthand the show’s timeliness. “Family-owned small businesses are always a hairline fracture away from going under. That’s what this show is,” Matheson tells Complex. “Life ain’t a straight line. The show is about family relationships and not being great at life and then still trying to show up. We’re trying to show life on life’s terms; life sucks, it’s heavy, it’s uncompromising but we all gotta show up every day to try to make it work.”
Part of Matheson’s job is to coach the actors so that their portrayals of chefs and cooks are accurate, and if you’ve ever worked at a restaurant you’ll be able to notice the detail and care that went into each one of the scenes. The actors do their own cooking on the show thanks to an intense training process that sent some of them to culinary schools in California and all the way to Denmark, as well as landed them gigs at some high-end restaurants.
“Before the show, I was useless,” White says about his cooking skills. “Production was great and I did a two-week crash course at a school in Pasadena, the Institute of Culinary Education, which was lovely. And then I worked in a couple of Michelin star restaurants. The restaurant I spent the most time in was Pasjoli. Chef Dave [Beran] really took me in. He let me cook on the line, I was there prepping. They were all really wonderful and supportive.”
That kind of meticulous care and wanting to make the show as genuine as it is is what the creators and the cast hope viewers notice about the show. “I hope they connect with the family aspect of the kitchen. What I really want more than anything is for people who really are working in the back of house, cooks, chefs, I hope it rings true for them,” White says. “If we can show it to people that really lived in that world and they think it’s true and honest, then we succeeded.”
The Bear is the kind of show that grabs your attention and doesn’t let go. Each of the characters feels like they’re holding onto a big secret about their lives, their hurts, their pasts, and their ambitions that they have to hide inside the kitchen—but it’s clear that everyone there has the same purpose. White’s performance is exceptional. He is tormented, heartbroken, and dealing with his own issues but still manages to lead his team and create a family out of his employees, all while mourning the loss of his big brother—the person he loved and looked up to the most but had a complicated relationship with.
Carmy’s relationship with Sydney, played by comedian Ayo Edebiri, blossoms through Season 1 and becomes the foundation of the restaurant’s rebirth. They’re both professional chefs who had a taste of glory until life called them back home but they have what it takes and the know-how to run a successful kitchen. The tension between Carmy and his brother’s best friend Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) is so thick but their scenes together bring out the best in both actors. Overall the chemistry between the cast—which also includes Abby Elliott, Lionel Boyce, Liza Colón-Zayas, and Edwin Lee Gibson—is electrifying and adds to the magic, urgency, and high energy that makes the show great. (The season also features some incredible cameos that we won’t spoil here but you need to see for yourself.)
“We feel so lucky that we got to make the show, especially with the cast that we got to make it with, with Matty as our producer, it’s absolutely a dream,” Calo adds. “It’s also a story about doing it together, and being there for each other, even if you kind of hate each other while you’re doing it, we need to do it together in order to make things work.”
Food lovers will surely get a kick out of the half-hour original series, and for those who’ve never worked in the service industry, this will help you understand the grind and hard work it takes for chefs and restaurant staff to prepare your favorite meals.
All Season 1 episodes of The Bear are now available for streaming only on Hulu.