Great dramedy in an Italian roast beef

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Great dramedy in an Italian roast beef

Jeremy Allen White and Liza Colon-Zayas in The Bear.

Jeremy Allen White and Liza Colon-Zayas in The bear
photo: Matt Dinerstein/FX

Is there more Chicago than footage of perfectly seasoned meat being cooked into an Italian beef, the city’s most boastful sandwich, voiced by Wilco, the city’s most boastful band, on “Via Chicago”? In the case of FX The bear, actually, yeah, sort of: Prior to that site-specific food and ear porn in the pilot, two guys, one with the Chicago area code “773” tattooed on his left bicep, give each other shit to each other and other very Chicago signifiers: a billboard , which advertises Malört, a really horrible liquor, and a lighted sign for Vienna Beef, makers of some really great hot dogs. The city hovers above The bear It doesn’t matter if someone complains that the districts “Pilsen, Wicker [Park]and Logan [Square]’ have become ‘shit’, or how two characters in particular spit out syllables with just the right attitude and non-caricatured Chicago accents.

But the most glaring reference, or moment in which the city is portrayed as a character, is left until the beginning of episode seven, when Lin Brehmer, morning host of local radio station WXRT, introduces Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” and notes, “While you heard it All roads lead to Rome, some roads lead from Chicago.” The demo version of the song begins heavy acoustic strumming before Stevens’ delicate performance takes center stage, and we’re met with a montage of city life: water towers and the skyline and traffic and beautiful architecture and the El and back streets captured on a morning commute and even the Superdawg Drive-In (coincidentally the location of a Wilco photoshoot for Turn). Then it kicks off, throwing in some of the good, bad, and ugly sides of the city’s history: Barack Obama’s campaign, Al Capone, and police brutality during the 1968 Democratic Convention, to name a few.

If that all sounds a bit much, like too much of a leap for what is supposedly a very funny (albeit very dark) show about what goes on at a Mom and Pop restaurant, funnily enough it isn’t. (And if you have any connection to this city, you can make fun of the above description – that Sufjan song? They could be more on the nose? — but frankly, the effect is moving.) The bear has that rare ability to turn tones on a dime without feeling like it’s stretching you or manipulating you or undeserving where a comical play about accidentally spearing the Ecto Cooler at a kids party one minute by an Emotionally Guarded Extremely Chicago Guy who tells a tear-jerking tale about a deceased family member the next.

But back to the other guy, the one with the Chicago tattoo. This is Carmy (shameless‘ Jeremy Allen White, who puts in quite a remarkable performance, delivering the role with that dull-eyed-greasy-hair-needs-a-cigarette-break thing, even if he’s oddly muscular for a guy who’s running with a greasy spoon) . He was a red-hot chef in New York and was named Best Young Chef of the Year (or something like that) by him Food & Wine, and win a James Beard Award. Now, after a reorganization in his family, he’s back in Chicago to run their restaurant, a River North staple called the Original Beef of Chicagoland. (One very minor gripe here: No space in Chicago proper would have “Chicagoland” in the name of its restaurant, as it denotes the suburbs. But we assume they had to do it for debatable reasons. Anyway.) In addition, he is there to improve their game and become an “Exalted One”. Food & Wine critic could write, a timeless, classless meal.

None of that sits well with his cousin — but it doesn’t technically Cousin – Richy (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, who pulls off a fantastically hilarious motor-mouth turn), a family friend’s energizer bunny and a general loser who has little but the beef to keep him quiet. There are too many good deliveries from Moss-Bachrach – whoever plays one of these characters gets it the Chicago accent without lapsing into caricature, the throwing type of guy unironically “Sweetheart” – but here’s one:

“I can’t believe I’m taking orders from a Fuck toddler now. All my life I’ve had to listen to everyone worrying about him all the time. “He’s a baby. Don’t get Carmine in trouble.” You know? I was a baby once too, Sydney. Nobody cared about it.”

Ayo Edebiri in The Bear.

Ayo Edebiri a The bear
photo: Matt Dinerstein/FX

Anyway, here’s another, one of the many comedic advice-a-tat exchanges between him and Carmy:

“Bullshit. This motherfucker is complete fucking bullshit.”

“Perfect timing, I…”

“Who does he think he is? You know he’s not even Italian, right? 100% Polish. Damn insulting.”

“You know you’re not even Italian, right?”

“More Italian than the guy.”

Speaking of Sydney (Ayo Edebiri, also excellent and a sort of host of the show), it’s the young aspiring chef’s relationship with Carmy that is developing The bearFocus. Like Carmy, she attended the Culinary Institute of America. Like him, she has an impressive resume and has had a hard time with local favorites Smoque BBQ and Alinea. Like him, she is incredibly ambitious, taking over the kitchen as sous-chef and bringing the ragtag crew into a working order akin to that of an upscale kitchen, particularly Marcus (Lionel Boyce), who has pastry chef fever. And like Carmy, her mentor (in this caseCarmy) can be an asshole, throwing away great ideas and shutting down when there are real problems to be solved.

The Bear | Official Trailer | fx

The rest of the cast is ace as well, both in the kitchen (Liza Colón-Zayas as a skeptic who has been slinging sandwiches at the Beef for decades, as well as consulting producer, chef and Vice personality Matty Matheson, who’s a handyman who’s not quite on the payroll) and out (Abby Elliott as Carmy’s worried sister and Chris Witaske as her bumbling, nice Midwestern husband).

A word of warning, though: do yourself a favor and give The bear at least two episodes before sentencing. That’s hardly a blow to the pilot, but it puts you in a working environment so intense and chaotic and cramped that it takes a bit of time to orient yourself and appreciate the show and its characters beyond the chaos and flashbacks see. Once you have acclimated, The bear becomes something of a miracle, a show with its own rhythm and with characters that you generally want to be with, even if they lose their composure. This penultimate episode, the same one with the moving montage intro set to Sufjan, ends with one of the most impressive directorial performances I’ve seen on television this year: a 10-minute single-shot climax that, like everything else, runs through the cramped kitchen meanders falls apart and characters clash, again with a soundtrack by Wilco (a wild live jam from “Spiders [Kidsmoke]’), which is perhaps appropriate: This show, like this band, like this humble sandwich, can hold a lot.

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