When I first heard that FX on Hulu had rolled out eight episodes of a new half-hour series called “The Bear,” I had visions of a talking grizzly hanging out in some suburban family’s living room – only to come to learn it was about a Chicago Italian beef sandwich shop. It honestly didn’t sound like my idea of appointment viewing. But then the critics reviews started to roll in. They were all singular raves, punctuating a 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The seriocomic venture that was far more serio than comic was praised for its intensity, for its uncanny cast chemistry and for its realism – for being the first show about the business of cooking and serving to finally get it right.
When awards season shifted into gear, “The Bear” was right there with “Ted Lasso” and “Abbott Elementary” as a TV darling – but also with a caveat. Its star Jeremy Allen White won SAG, Critics Choice and Golden Globe honors, and the series itself took home a PGA Award, a WGA Award and two Independent Spirit Awards (for top new scripted series as well as for supporting player Ayo Edebiri). But it arrived too late for Emmy consideration, so any attention from the TV academy has been on hold. That will naturally change this year, though while it will qualify for season one’s output, the episodes that will be freshest in voters’ minds will in fact be season two (arriving on Hulu beginning in June).
While 11-time Emmy winner “Ted Lasso” has jumped out to an early lead on Gold Derby for top comedy as it looks to win its third straight Outstanding Comedy Series statue, “The Bear” is doing just fine in fourth place. Too, White is running second in the lead comedy actor race behind two-time victor Jason Sudeikis while Edebiri is a very close fourth among comedy supporting actress contenders. And Ebon Moss-Bachrach finds himself a respectable 11th among supporting actors. So it’s clear “The Bear” will be making plenty of Emmy nominations noise in multiple categories.
To say that none of this would have been imaginable even nine months ago is a significant understatement. The story of a five-star chef named Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (White) who is forced to return to Chicago to run the Italian beef emporium operated by his brother after he commits suicide, “The Bear” is a masterful creation blending heartbreak, excitement, soul-crushing despondency, epic disagreements, aching disappointments, wrenching grief and compelling family dynamics, all within the context of running a restaurant business. Its intensity can take your breath away.
That said, the FX braintrust wasn’t fully prepared for the overwhelming response. The network thought it had a nice little show on its hands, not an epic awards magnet.
One FX exec noted that “The Bear” “might be the most universally beloved show for a first season that we’ve ever done. As much as we all loved it internally, it caught us off-guard. It really kind of came out of nowhere and just blew up.” Indeed, if a network thinks it’s got something extra-special, it typically doesn’t roll it out in June, when people are hitting the vacation road, not their streaming stride. But that’s just how impactful “The Bear” was. It inspired viewers to stay inside and binge. They just couldn’t help themselves. The embrace was immediate and wholehearted.
In a mega-competitive environment where it’s so difficult for television shows to get any traction and stand out, “The Bear” was an immediate game-changer. Literally every show that’s ever been done about cooking has basically failed. This one succeeded because it got all of the details right, straight down to the close quarters of the employees and claustrophobic environment. The millions of Americans who either work or have worked in the food service industry – as a waiter or waitress, a short-order cook, a busboy, a dishwasher, a cashier, a hostess – could relate. It rang true with a wide swath of the viewing public and in many ways deeply touched them.
It also felt like a workplace comedy (albeit a very dark one) in the mold of a “Cheers,” a “Taxi,” a “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” a “Scrubs,” a “The Office,” a “30 Rock,” an “Abbott Elementary,” where a group of disparate individuals alternately grow apart and come together to form their own family. You come to care about and love them. That was certainly the case with characters in “The Bear” who wore their caring and loyalty on their sleeve. They invited us in to be a part of their extended clan, and we couldn’t get enough. It was also a touch of genius for FX to put out all eight episode at once to binge on Hulu, as it really is one of those impossible-to-stop-watching experiences, like a beautiful train wreck in slow motion.
It sounds on the face of it like the show will be fairly radically transformed for its second season. Word is that it will have more comedy than in its first go-round, along with more episodes (expanding to 10) and possibly a profoundly different dynamic. A new 30-second teaser shows the employees at the Chicago sandwich shop where the series had been based somberly packing up their stuff after the first season ended with Carmy closing The Beef to open his new establishment Carmy & Co. But few specifics are being offered, including the precise date in June when the show will be dropping.
Again, however, it’s episodes from the first season of “The Bear” that Emmy voters will be asked to assess.
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