How The Bear Beats Chicagoans’ Expectations

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Photo:  FX Networks
Photo: FX Networks

I was ready to hate The Bear. As someone who is extremely online (maybe to a fault), I had already heard complaints about the series’ inaccurate Chicago-isms, and although the rest of the internet is thirsting over the show’s star (Jeremy Allen White), he reminds me too much of my best friend’s husband for me to join in. (If anything, we should be lusting after Ayo Edebiri, okay?) It made me wonder: What does this show have for me? 

I enlisted my sibling Lenny as a viewing companion, not only because they watch just as much television as I do but also because they are currently a line cook in Chicago and could offer even more insight into whether or not the show really got it.

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Why I hated The Bear

We hate-watched our way through the first chunk of episodes, which started in such a frenzy of chaos that we weren’t even really sure what was going on. Who are these people? Why do we care? Why is this man trying to turn Mr. Beef (er, I’m sorry, The Original Beef of Chicagoland) into a fine dining establishment?

Then came the criticisms of how it portrays Chicago. The supposed location of the Mr. Beef rip-off is just blocks away from The Takeout’s HQ in River North, a neighborhood full of people who are, as editor in chief Jordan Calhoun recently observed, perpetually coming from or on their way to a spin class. It’s a far cry from the gritty neighborhood shown on the series. River North is not at risk of being gentrified—it’s long been gentrified.

Block Club Chicago does a great job of dispelling other inaccuracies: 773 is not the area code to get tattooed on one’s body to display hometown pride; Chicago restaurants do not display health code grades in the window; and no Italian beef shop in Chicago has ever or would ever bake its rolls in house. As a resident of a city that’s not often portrayed on screen, these bungled details are like nails on a chalkboard, with that screeching sound drowning out everything else about the series. It seemed at first like the show was getting everything wrong, from a storytelling perspective and an accuracy standpoint. That is, it was all wrong until it wasn’t.

The best episode of The Bear makes the whole series make sense

The Bear only has eight episodes in its first season, so the fact that the seventh episode is the one where it all clicks might seem like a flaw. But “Review,” episode seven, retroactively redeems the whole series, poising it for a rewatch with a renewed attitude. It’s in “Review” that the artistry of the filmmaking shines, providing the most realistic depiction of what it’s like to work in a restaurant (and all the anxiety therein) while highlighting the arc and development of each of the ensemble’s characters. It’s a hard job to do in a 20-minute, single-shot episode, but it does it well.

“Everything changed in the real-time episode, when it came more about the restaurant and less about where it was and what was happening outside of there,” my sibling Lenny says. “That episode really shows how high stakes everything feels, but isn’t, but is.”

From start to finish in episode seven, the camera never cuts away, bobbing and weaving between the chefs as they prep for service, set up the dining room, and lash out at each other. Even more anxiety-inducing than the frantic moments of action is the brief downtime between each, when the characters try and fail to take a deep breath or actually taste that delicious doughnut that was smashed into the ground.

Watching these characters in real time highlights their humanity and how much they want not only this restaurant to work but their own lives to work. It becomes less about the status of the restaurant itself and more about just surviving a shift—a universal feeling, no matter the industry you’re in. Rooting for and against various characters throughout this episode flicked a switch: The Bear, it turns out, is good.

And before digging into the meat of the episode, the seventh episode gets points for the Chicago factor as well. It opens with the familiar voice of WXRT’s Lin Brehmer introducing the song “Chicago” by Sufjan Stevens. A little on the nose, sure, but that involvement of a hometown legend hits especially hard this week, as Brehmer announced he’s taking a break from the airwaves to go through cancer treatment. It’s enough to melt my cold Lake Michigan heart.

It will never be a perfect show—nothing but Bob’s Burgers deserves that distinction in this writer’s humble opinion. But I’ve grown to love The Bear, and I can’t wait to spend more time at The Original Beef of Chicagoland.