Here’s a bold statement: The Bear’s seventh episode, “Review,” is so good that it should be shown in film school just to show how much tension, backstory, and exposition a show’s creators can pack into a mere 20 minutes of television.
Twenty minutes! That’s the whole episode! And it’s perfect! It’s just enough to let you know that the Original Beef is royally, fully fucked, and it’s short enough that you walk away from the episode going, “Shit, I gotta know what happens next.”
“Review” opens with a voice-over from Lin Brehmer, the longtime morning host of the alt-rock station in Chicago, WXRT. It’s hard to explain WXRT if you haven’t heard it, but it’s an unholy blend of ’90s Chicago heyday stuff (Smashing Pumpkins, Local H), modern indie rock that’s not too too out there, and a lot of longtime personalities like Brehmer. They support local bands fiercely, they’re always at shows, and people have listened to Brehmer every day for the better part of their entire adult lives. He’s florid and effusive, like in this intro where he talks about “Christmas Unicorn” Sufjan Stevens, but if you’re into it, you love him.
The same can be said for Chicago as a whole, which Brehmer introduces with Stevens’s cut. The Bear aims to celebrate the city with an opening montage that uses a mix of archival footage and B-roll shots out on the town, giving the unfamiliar a glimpse of what life in Chicago is like. Yes, there’s a big beanlike statue down in Millennium Park or whatever, but life in Chicago is actually about neighborhoods and buses, pizza from Pequod’s (not Uno’s), and a brisk dash along the el tracks in the morning on the way to work.
Chicago is also about being kicked down and knowing how to get up, which the Original Beef can hopefully do next episode. “Review” dumps us into the restaurant on the most auspicious of days, with the restaurant’s five-star Telegraph (read Tribune) review coming the very same day as the Beef’s embrace of the to-go tablet (read Postmates, Doordash). Let this be said of Chicagoans: If a publication says something is good, every single person in Chicago will have to go there, try that thing, and have an opinion on it. They will want to be first and want to either love whatever it is and feel good about the fact that they had it, or hate it and then tell all their friends that it was overrated. That Sydney left the preorder function open on the to-go tablet means that everyone who ordered 97 slices of cake or whatever thinks that they are beating the system, that they are getting a deal, and that they are smarter than everyone else that day. And in some ways, they seem smarter than anyone who works at the Original Beef.
Because, frankly, almost everyone working at the Original Beef on the day of “Review” seems to be at their absolute worst. Tina is late because her teenage son got suspended, so now he’s just hanging around trying to learn about working in a restaurant. Carmen is mad that Sydney just happened to give her risotto to a critic from the fucking newspaper, and now her plate is the one everyone is talking about. Sydney and Richie are at each others’ throats before the tablet even goes on in a well-reasoned argument about angles, expectations, and “pushing out the working man.” When to-go goes awry, Carmy goes full Joel McHale and flips out on everyone, doing so, so much screaming. (Someone get him a fucking Sharpie!) Marcus’s cakes aren’t even cut, as he seems laser-focused on getting those doughnuts right. (Do your job!) Sydney gets removed from her expo position by Carmen, then gets thrown onto giardiniera duty. Richie ends up there too, and all of a sudden, she laces into him with the single most insulting speech I’ve ever seen a character of her lovableness give, and she threatens him with a knife. Richie gets in her face and calls her a fucking bitch, which frankly seems like an understatement, then gets stabbed in the ass. Literally. Ebra helps him while telling him a not-so-heartwarming story about civil war in Somalia (“Fucking Piven”) and then — boom! Marcus breaks down in the table area while Sydney packs up, tells Carmen off, and walks out the door. She quits, she says, and we almost believe her. Carmen then eats some of Marcus’s doughnut off the floor, destroys the ticket machine, and there’s a fuckin’ line outside the restaurant before they even open. They are royally fucked, and the credits roll as Wilco’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” comes to a blaring conclusion. That is how you make TV, everyone.
Suffice it to say that I loved “Review,” which sets the table perfectly for the show’s season-one finale. (With more to come, one can hope?) “Review” exposes all of the flaws in the Original Beef while also showing some of its strengths. The food is great, people want to eat there, and some of the chefs are very good and solid at their jobs. They’re passionate, too — though sometimes that passion might get away from them, whether in doughnut or knife form. If they can metaphorically tear the Beef down to its studs, maybe they can find something good to work with and start again — but the Beef does have to be taken down to those studs. “Review” is a good reminder that the Original Beef may have looked like it was getting its shit together, but it was all sitting on an unstable foundation of Mikey’s death and deceit. “Review” let it all come crashing down like a wedding cake set on a wobbly card table, and while it was spectacular to watch because we do love these characters and want them to succeed, you also sort of wish they’d put the cake on something with four stable legs. That being said, isn’t that why we love them? Long live the Original Beef, and here’s hoping they can pull it together in the season finale.
• This is just a note to say that I adore shabby, old, gray-looking midwestern restaurants. The Bear seems like it was shot in the six-month period in Chicago in which it is neither sunny nor warm nor even a little nice out, and that’s when all those establishments shine aesthetically. It’s like they’ve all been there forever, and it rules. Places like the Original Beef deserve always to be filmed with a giant icy mountain of gray snow outside around the parking sign, as that is their natural state in Chicago.
• “Fuckin’ Piven” was very funny to me because, unlike John Cusack, who many Chicagoans do have a genuine fondness for, Jeremy Piven is not what I would call “incredibly beloved.” He does good things for the city and all of that, but somehow, something about him just rubs some people the wrong way. I truly cannot explain it.
• It’s funny that Richie and Carmen both take offense to the restaurant being described as “shabby.” They’ve seen that Ballbreaker setup, right?
• What do we think is in Marcus’s heavenly doughnut? Are those plums? Cherries? It looks like it’s a raised donut with cherry filling and some icing on top that makes it look like a cinnamon bun. It’s kind of bizarre, but I’m sure it’s excellent.
• One more episode to go! I’m going to miss our pals! And I’m starving!