How the show’s grimy, messy realism stakes its claim as the front runner of 30-minute dramas
“Chef! Fuck!” someone yells. The chef in question, Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, runs to the kitchen to find an avalanche of orders overflowing from the printer. “What the fuck, Syd?” he shouts to his sous. “You left the preorder open!” Carm—red-faced and at his breaking point—looks up: “That means we have 78 slices of chocolate cake, 99 French fries, 54 chickens, 38 salads due up in eight minutes.”
This may be an average scene in Hulu’s popular kitchen drama The Bear, but it’s not your average show. It’s a symphony of chaos, composed of tight shots, quick cuts, and rapid-fire dialogue that seeps with tension, unfolding with all the velocity and raw intimacy of a taut Iñárritu film. In turns gritty, stressful, and claustrophobic, Christopher Storer’s 30-minute, eight-episode drama emulates the rhythm of a kitchen and captures the mayhem of the service industry, giving viewers a taste of what television can be when the fluff is whittled down. In an era of television defined by bloated, hour-long episodes, it invites the question: Can a drama be 30 minutes long?
From Sex and the City to Fleabag, we’ve seen 30-minute comedies and dramedies excel. We’ve also seen comedies getting more daring: Atlanta used horror in its last season to explore the realities of race in America today. But has a show ever been this much of a true drama, focused and following characters’ progression while capping itself at 30 minutes? No—at least not like The Bear (anthologies Room 104 and The Girlfriend Experience notwithstanding). The Bear’s entire seventh episode is one impressive shot—a nod to Goodfellas, which features a three-minute long take of its main characters going through the kitchen before finally making their way to their table. More than paying homage, though, The Bear beckons a return to classic “close-watching” shows like The Sopranos and The Wire. Similarly to The Sopranos, which illustrated the behind-the-scenes happenings of a mob family at home and at work—and threw us into that world before developing its characters—The Bear catapults us into its world, pulling the kitchen curtain back at 200 mph. Audiences are hooked, if the show’s status on Hulu is any indication: The Bear saw a 114% increase in demand days after it dropped. Unlike other flashy, action-based shows that provide viewers the luxury of multitasking, The Bear demands your attention—and in an environment like that, you don’t dare look away.
“There’s a cadence to any kitchen, and only those who’ve worked in one can recognize it. The Bear serves it to us cold.”
The series follows Carm (Jeremy Allen White), a former head chef at an elite New York bistro who returns to Chicago to resuscitate his family’s restaurant after his brother’s suicide. It depicts kitchen culture down to the fast-paced vernacular, and follows the transformation of a neighborhood restaurant as it’s reinvigorated with the standards and mentality of a fine dining establishment. (Carm reorganizes the staff into a hierarchical system dubbed the “French Brigade.”) Viewers think they’re in for a workplace drama, but instead The Bear inverts that trend by turning the workplace into the home. Other shows depict outside moments for character depth, but in The Bear, we have to get it from the characters reacting to one another in real-time, in the kitchen. We only see snippets, if that, of their lives outside.
Unlike most shows and stories today, there isn’t an overarching antagonist that Carm and his motley kitchen crew have to beat or outmaneuver; there is no critic or disgruntled employee that threatens the restaurant or their livelihoods. The Bear’s villain is much more real: It’s time, it’s money, it’s the day-to-day grind we all come up against in life—the act of trying to stay afloat. And the buzz it’s caused across the streaming sphere speaks to audiences’ engrossment in depictions of economic hardships that today are a reality, especially in the wake of the pandemic. The opposite side of that coin sees audiences invested in shows like Succession and Industry, where money is thrown around lavishly and the very act of making it is rendered a kind of game (something my finance friends tell me isn’t entirely untrue). Both narratives speak to different parts of ourselves: The ever-shrinking middle class watches The Bear and sees fragments of their own struggles, from a degree of distance that at least they aren’t quite there. Viewers’ interest in shows that focus on the uber rich, on the other hand, may stem from a fascination with those opulent few who profit most under capitalism and play a part in creating its landscape.
“Unlike most shows and stories today, there isn’t an overarching antagonist that Carm and his motley kitchen crew have to beat or outmaneuver… The Bear’s villain is much more real: It’s time, it’s money, it’s the day-to-day grind we all come up against in life.”
For me—someone who worked as a busser and server in restaurants and bars in LA and New York—The Bear doesn’t glamorize its environment or trivialize it. The series seeks to capture it organically, nailing the feelings of what it’s like to work in the service industry: family meals before the deluge of customers, Tums in the cabinet, escaping to the walk-in fridge to take a breath, and repressing anxiety over health inspections. You’re on your feet, working with a melting pot of people for eight, 10, even 12-hour shifts. You see the literal blood (put that finger condom on and get back in there, kid!), sweat, and tears of your co-workers—peers you forge friendships with and butt heads with. I found myself grinding my teeth watching characters dash around, yelling “Corner!” and “Behind!” There’s a cadence to any kitchen, and only those who’ve worked in one can recognize it. The Bear serves it to us cold.
However, it isn’t just the authenticity—it’s the microscopic lens. It’s the details: from the dishwasher telling the rest of the staff that the tape needs to be peeled off quart containers after use, because it clogs the machine (that tape really is a pain in the ass!), to Carm stepping outside for a cigarette break, holding an overused plastic quart of water. (Yes, staff never use glassware). Viewers don’t need to be part of that world to be drawn in. On the contrary, they’re drawn in because they’re not of that world. And because Storer is a great storyteller, and showcases other elements that speak to people: addiction, loss, and trauma.
Storer has redefined viewers’ experience and revamped our notions of television itself. He’s also given us something real. The Bear has shown us that not only hour-long dramas are capable of a good story—a drama just needs to be told right.
The Bear has its heavy moments, but it never makes you want to stop watching. Storer gives us enough to keep coming back, with each episode seamlessly bleeding into the next. It shows us that it is possible to tell a great story within the confines of a 30-minute episode. Its realism isn’t only thrilling on a viewership level; it’s game-changing for streaming and storytelling as a whole. Is The Bear an anomaly, or is this dawn of a 30-minute television renaissance? We’ll have to wait and see.