Lessons from one of TVs most stress inducing shows…
The Bear is a comedic drama created by Christopher Storer, which follows the life of Michelin-starred chef, Carmen “The Bear” Berzatto, played by Jeremy Allen White (Shameless), who inherits a failing Chicago sandwich shop after his brother commits suicide.
The series shows Carmen’s struggles to rein in his wayward staff, failing business, as well as battling his own family dramas and mental health struggles.
The show also stars Ayo Edebiri (Bottoms), Ebon Moss-Bachrach (Girls), Abby Elliott (SNL), Oliver Platt (Chef), Matty Matheson (It’s Suppertime!), Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween) and Jon Bernthal (The Punisher).
But The Bear is far more than this, it is a visceral masterpiece that assaults the senses and keeps the viewer in high tension, while also providing heart, by following the rhythms of a real professional kitchen.
Pulling the audience into the action
Anyone who’s worked in hospitality will know things can go from cool to very uncool in a matter of moments, just because a big table decides to walk in.
In a kitchen, everything runs on instinct. You waste a second and the dish is ruined, so there isn’t time to care for people’s feelings in the moment.
It might sound hyperbolic but a kitchen really can feel like a war zone, racing against a gauntlet of sharp objects, fire hazards and even fiery tempers, to give that customer the best damn dining experience of their life (and hopefully not salmonella).
The Bear makes the audience feel like they are right there in the thick of the action through clever writing and movie-making magic, so let’s explore how The Bear throws us into the heat of the kitchen…
A constant sensory assault
One of the major ways that The Bear brings us into the world is to make it close and present through its layered sound design that is meant to engage and jar us.
You feel every slice of a knife hitting a chopping board, every clang of a pan hitting a stove, doors slamming, every explosive row between Carmy and Ritchie.
Harsh sounds are never softened, instead they are purposefully mixed so that they jump out from the screen, layered onto one another so you never know when the assault will end.
You’re put right in the thick of it with guns going off right beside your ear, fraying your every nerve and making you feel like the characters are right on top of you.
Visceral use of space
Speaking of on top of you, The Bear very rarely uses wide shots, opting for close ups and ultra close ups to give a sense of claustrophobia.
I think this is partially due to the layout of the set, which forces the action to occur in a small space, but it’s also intended to make us feel suffocated.
There usually isn’t a lot of room to move in a kitchen, so when you pair this with chaos and screaming, it intensifies the drama. You feel stressed watching things unfold because you feel unable to escape from it.
However, this is also used to great effect when it comes to the food, which is always upfront and centre. Delicious dishes styled so that we can almost taste them.
There is a great scene where Carmy eats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The way it’s shot in severe close ups really highlights the character’s obsessive focus on food, even when it’s only functional.
The mess - Oh, the mess!
Along with the lack of space and the constant yelling, we are treated to out of context pick up shots of disgusting scenes.
Food waste everywhere, hot sweaty people, pans boiling, fire hazards, which in the context of food are enough to turn your stomach. These types of shots really serve to highlight the disorder of both the restaurant as well as Carmy’s mind.
In season two, we get to see a flashback of a holiday dinner cooked by Berzatto matriarch, Donna, played in glorious fashion by the great Jamie Lee Curtis.
While cooking their dinner, Donna is surrounded by mess, which only grows as she becomes increasingly drunk and emotional.
The way she continuously grasps her glass of wine with her filthy hands is honestly stomach churning, and is a great callback to the disorder of The Original Beef of Chicagoland before everyone got on board with Carmy’s revamp.
It shows how this type of disorder affects Carmy, and as the mess gets bigger, Donna becomes more deranged and aggressive to everyone around her.
It really shows what drives Carmy’s need for calm and order, and how he is continuously fighting against his demons, real and imagined. It as if bearing witness to this chaos puts us within Carmy’s mind and shows us exactly how he’s feeling at any given moment.
It goes from “fine to unfine” on a knife edge
This is by far one of the most jarring elements of this show, and one of the most realistic, how everything can seem perfectly fine, everyone is chatting and having fun, when suddenly one tiny spark erupts in mayhem.
Ritchie and Carmy start a row, there is a drive-by shooting, a kitchen fire erupts from nowhere, too many to-go orders, and suddenly everything is out of control.
However, this is nearly always followed by periods of quiet and reflection where characters reset and air their grievances.
Kitchens are like fighting back an enemy horde before night falls and everything becomes quiet. Which feels very much like the aftermath of a hectic dinner service.
Without these moments of reflection, The Bear would probably be too stressful to be good watching, but these constant ebbs and flows of high drama brought back to earth by genuine moments of connection between characters is what makes this show so addicting.
Despite the adversarial nature of many of these characters, they are all complex and well-rounded characters, operating on wants and instinct. Their disagreements are territorial, due to misunderstandings and working styles, never due to a desire to see the world burn.
When these characters are at loggerheads its chaos, when they in collaborating, it is a symphony. It is like the delicious meal that is presented to you after all of that screaming.
The second that meal leaves the kitchen the customer eating it has no idea about all of that blood, sweat and tears that went into it. The onslaught is over, we can tend to our dead, lick our wounds, and revise our battle strategy for next time.
Bringing it all together
The Bear is such a well-crafted piece of television, which due to its visceral nature, makes you connect deeply with these characters and their situation.
You almost feel like comrades in arms, learning and healing together. It shows the value of dedication, team work, and how passion can achieve great things.
If you haven’t had a chance to watch this show, I highly recommend it. It is a masterpiece in writing, execution and acting, and can teach us so much about what makes good television.
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