Going home means different things to different people. Some never leave home; some count the days until they can leave, and never go back. For most everyone else, it means a kind of reconciliation between the past and the present, seeing how things have changed in our absence and how we have changed ourselves. Sometimes it means catching up and renewing old relationships, and sometimes it means picking up the pieces and figuring out how move on.
The Bear is many things. It represents the struggles of a makeshift family, an inside look at a blue-collar restaurant, and a love letter to a place and time in a great city, all at once. It is also very much a homecoming story, one where the prodigal son made a name for himself in the world only to be drawn home to prove himself again.
Let me say this up front. The Bear is very good television. It was released somewhat unceremoniously to FX on Hulu. I’m still not entirely sure how I started watching it. It may also be the best show of 2022 so far. It feels true to life, with characters that feel alive in a way I would most compare to something like Friday Night Lights. And while the two shows are quite different, it becomes very easy to empathize with the characters, to be emotionally invested in their lives and their futures.
This genuine quality is consistent in the other aspects of the show. I have it on good authority that the kitchen in The Beef represents restaurant work very well, for better or worse. It’s particularly relevant when one character questions how much time and effort and money goes into the restaurant. From the outside it appears to be an unhealthy obsession, but inside it is a way of life for these people.
It is not always easy to watch. There is a constant difference of opinions on the direction of the restaurant and how to best run it. A sign in the restaurant says “it might be 2020 outside but it’s still 1987 inside”, and for some, that sign is absolute truth. There is a constant conflict between what the restaurant was, and what it aspires to be. Beyond that, it remains a challenging environment, regardless of philosophy. The kitchen is demanding and not always forgiving. The stress is palpable and inescapable.
The transparency and honesty that makes the show difficult to watch is also a genuine strength. It allows us to know the characters through their actions, and by letting us see who they are through their work and their lives. Nearly everyone here is at a crossroads, with Carmy picking up the pieces of his brother’s life while trying to change the culture at the restaurant. The others are looking for their place in life, some of whom want to embrace the new culture, some of whom view it as a threat to their sense of self.
All of this should present the show as serious, and it is. But The Bear is not without love, or a sense of humor. There are some very funny moments in the show; there may only be one episode where I failed to laugh multiple times. The characters themselves might be defined by a sense of belonging, but they are not merely vehicles for conflict. While the show succeeds in many regards, its treatment of its characters may be its greatest strength.
Overall I can recommend The Bear with very few reservations. When I started watching it, there were some other shows vying for my attention, some good ones at that (Reservoir Dogs, Abbott Elementary, bonus episodes of Netflix’s The Sandman). But I ended up watching The Bear for a second time, which may be the best endorsement I can give the show.