Is there anything more Chicago than footage of perfectly seasoned meat being cooked for an Italian beef, the city’s brag-worthiest sandwich, set to “Via Chicago” by Wilco, the city’s brag-worthiest band? In the case of FX’s The Bear, actually, yeah, kind of: Before that location-specific bit of food and ear porn in the pilot, two dudes, one of them with the Chicago area code “773” tattooed on his left bicep, give each other shit in front of other very Chicago signifiers: a billboard advertising Malört, a truly awful liquor, and an illuminated sign for Vienna Beef, maker of some truly great hotdogs. The city hovers over The Bear throughout, whether it’s in someone griping that the neighborhoods “Pilsen, Wicker [Park], and Logan [Square]” have become “shit,” or in how two characters in particular spit out syllables with just the right attitude and non-cartoony Chicago accents.
But the most blatant reference or city-as-character moment is saved until the opening of episode seven, when Lin Brehmer, the morning host for local radio station WXRT, introduces Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago,” noting that “while you’ve heard all roads lead to Rome, some roads lead from Chicago.” The demo version of the song kicks in with heavy acoustic strums before Stevens’ delicate delivery takes centerstage, and we’re hit with a montage of city life: water towers and the skyline and traffic and beautiful architecture and the El and side streets caught on a morning commute and even the Superdawg Drive-In (coincidentally, the location of a Wilco photoshoot for Spin). Then, it goes for it, and some of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the city’s history are tossed in: Barack Obama’s campaign, Al Capone, and police brutality during the ’68 Democratic National Convention, to name a few.
If that all sounds a bit much, like too big of a leap for what’s ostensibly a very funny (albeit also very dark) show about the goings on in a mom-and-pop restaurant, it’s weirdly not. (And if you have any connection to that city, you may scoff at the description above—that Sufjan song? Could they be more on-the-nose?—but honestly, the effect is moving.) The Bear has that rare ability to turn tones on a dime without feeling like it’s stretching or manipulating you or unearned, where a comical bit about accidentally spiking the Ecto Cooler at a kids’ party one minute is followed by an Emotionally Guarded Extremely Chicago Guy telling a teary-eyed story about a deceased family member the next.
But back to that other guy, the one with the Chicago tat. That’s Carmy (Shameless’ Jeremy Allen White, giving a pretty remarkable performance and looking the part with that bleary-eyed-greasy-hair-in-need-of-a-cigarette-break thing going on, even if he is oddly buff for a dude who runs a greasy spoon). He was a white-hot chef in New York, having been dubbed the best young chef of the year (or something) by Food & Wine, as well as nabbing a James Beard Award. Now, after a shakeup in his family, he’s back in Chicago to run their restaurant, a River North staple called the Original Beef of Chicagoland. (A very minor gripe here: No place in Chicago proper would have “Chicagoland” in the name of their restaurant, as that denotes the suburbs. But we’ll assume they had to for litigious reasons. Anyway.) What’s more, he’s there to up their game and “elevate,” as a Food & Wine critic might write, a timeless, classless meal.
None of this sits well with his cousin—but not technically cousin—Richy (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, who gives a fantastic, hilarious, motor-mouthed turn), an Energizer Bunny of a friend of the family and general fuck-up who has little else but the Beef to keep him steady. There are too many good deliveries from Moss-Bachrach—who plays one of those characters that gets the Chicago accent without straying into caricature, the kind of guy who throws out “sweetheart” unironically—but here’s one:
“I can’t believe I’m taking orders from a fucking toddler right now. My entire life I had to listen to everybody acting all worried about him all the time. ‘He’s a baby. Don’t get Carmine into trouble.’ You know? I was a baby too once, Sydney. Nobody gave a fuck.”
And what the hell, here’s another, one of the many comedic rat-a-tat exchanges between him and Carmy:
“Bullshit. That motherfucker is complete fucking bullshit.”
“Perfect timing, I—”
“Who does he think he is? You know he’s not even Italian, right? One-hundred-percent Polish. Fucking insulting.”
“You know you’re not even Italian, right?”
“More Italian than that guy is.”
Speaking of Sydney (Ayo Edebiri, also excellent and kind of the show’s anchor), it’s the young aspiring chef’s relationship with Carmy that becomes The Bear’s focus. Like Carmy, she attended the Culinary Institute of America. Like him, she has an impressive resume, cutting her teeth at local favorites Smoque BBQ and Alinea. Like him, she’s incredibly ambitious, taking over the kitchen as sous-chef and wrangling the ragtag group of employees into a working order similar to that of a fine-dining kitchen, particularly Marcus (Lionel Boyce) who gets the pastry-chef bug. And like Carmy, her mentor (in this case…Carmy) can be a dick, dismissing great ideas and tuning out when there are real issues to address.
The remainder of the cast is ace, too, both in the kitchen (Liza Colón-Zayas as a skeptic who’s been slinging sandwiches at the Beef for decades, and consulting producer, chef, and Vice personality Matty Matheson, who’s a not-quite-on-the-payroll handman) and out of it (Abby Elliott as Carmy’s concerned sister and Chris Witaske as her awkwardly nice-Midwestern-guy husband).
One warning, though: Do yourself a favor and give The Bear at least two episodes before passing judgment. That’s hardly a knock on the pilot, but it dumps you into a working environment that’s so intense and chaotic and cramped that it takes a bit of time to get your bearings and see the show and its characters beyond the chaos and flashbacks. Once you’re acclimated, The Bear becomes something of a marvel, a show with its own rhythm and with characters you generally want to be around, even as they’re losing it. That penultimate episode, the same one with the moving montage intro set to Sufjan, ends with one of the most impressive directing feats I’ve seen on television this year: a 10-minute single-shot climax that snakes through the constricted kitchen as everything falls apart and characters come to blows, this one also soundtracked by Wilco (a wild live jam of “Spiders [Kidsmoke]”), which is perhaps fitting: This show, like that band, like that humble sandwich, can contain multitudes.