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'The Bear' dishes up a sneaky, smart show that's just as manic as restaurant life

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. One of the year's surprise hits is FX's "The Bear," now available on Hulu. It centers on a brilliant young chef who leaves the world of fine dining to run his family's sandwich shop in Chicago. Our critic at large, John Powers, says it's a sneaky smart show with the manic pace of restaurant work itself. Here's John.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Back when COVID was at its peak, one saw frequent news stories about how the pandemic was killing the restaurant business. This was undeniably true. Yet even at the best of times, running a restaurant is a killer. Whether you're a world-famous foodie destination or a mom-and-pop cafe, your workday isn't just relentless in its pressure; your profit margin is usually so small that an oil company executive would laugh in mocking disbelief. Viewers get plunged into the restaurant life in FX's breathlessly entertaining hit "The Bear," now available in its entirety on Hulu.

I know I'm coming to it late, but you see, when I watched the first episode, I had COVID. Not surprisingly, I couldn't enjoy it. But so many friends praised it that I tried again. And I discovered that this sharply written eight-part series, created by Christopher Storer, manages to be at once frenetic, stingingly accurate about restaurant work and maybe a tad shameless, especially in how it all works out. Jeremy Allen White, who you may know from the actual show "Shameless," stars as Carmen Berzatto, known as Carmy and sometimes Bear. Carmy was chef de cuisine at what was dubbed the world's best restaurant. But when his brother, Mike, suddenly dies, he inherits the family's sandwich shop named the Original Beef of Chicagoland. He aims not merely to save this beloved restaurant, but to make it excellent by changing how things work.

Even as he discovers the place is saddled with debts, Carmy meets resistance from the staff, starting with its quasi manager, Richie, who has an alpha male attitude without alpha male skills. He's played with great panache by Ebon Moss-Bachrach. Richie wants everything to stay the same, so does the feisty cook Tina. That's pungent Liza Colon-Zayas. But Carmy has his backers, too, starting with his first hire, a gifted, impatient chef, Sydney - she's winningly played by Ayo Edebiri - who helps him start taming the chaos. Here, early on, we sense the show's hyperactive quality when Carmy walks through the kitchen bickering with Tina and the chef named Ebraheim.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BEAR")

JEREMY ALLEN WHITE: (As Carmen) Tina.

EDWIN LEE GIBSON: (As Ebraheim) Carmen.

WHITE: (As Carmen) Ebraheim.

GIBSON: (As Ebraheim) Where is beef?

WHITE: (As Carmen) It's in the oven. Tina, can you start a new giardiniera for me, please, chef?

LIZA COLON-ZAYAS: (As Tina) I need my fennel first, Jeff.

GIBSON: (As Ebraheim) Carmen.

WHITE: (As Carmen) Ebraheim.

GIBSON: (As Ebraheim) I need my beef, then I do onions, then I do potatoes. We have system.

WHITE: (As Carmen) All right. But you could punch them, blanch them, freeze them, fry them before the beef, right?

GIBSON: (As Ebraheim) Don't mess up our place.

WHITE: (As Carmen) I'm not messing anything up. Chef, no, please. Please, do not touch that. If this is the one time you listen to me, please, do not touch that. That's been going for 12 hours, OK?

COLON-ZAYAS: (As Tina) That's my pot, Jeff. Everybody knows.

GIBSON: (As Ebraheim) That's her pot.

COLON-ZAYAS: (As Tina) That's my pot.

WHITE: (As Carmen) All right. Use another pot, please, chef, all right?

POWERS: In an earlier era, "The Bear" would be about how Carmy triumphantly turns his recalcitrant staff of bad-news chefs into a winning team. Now, some of that does happen here. The restaurant's towering bread and cake maker, Marcus, gets inspired by Carmy's cooking and become an obsessive baker who wants to produce the perfect doughnut. Catching a glimpse of grander horizons than he's ever known, he transcends his own sense of what he can do. Yet, for all Carmy's gifts as a chef, White's tightly wound performance reveals him to be a wounded soul. Though lavishly muscled, he's also possessed of a hunch, as if bent under the weight of work and a deeply ingrained male pathology when it comes to dealing with feelings.

While Richie's bluster is his way of avoiding emotional pain, Carmy escapes into a frantic, self-absorbed perfectionism that creates the very toxic restaurant culture he's always hated. "The Bear" definitely touches on a whole bunch of other themes, from the psychic cost of perfection to the cult of the genius white male chef. Indeed, Carmy's kitchen is filled with talented non-white chefs, like Sydney and Marcus, who want to grow and succeed. Revealingly, the character most loyal to the restaurant and Chicago's old ways - he worries about gentrification - is Richie, who wants to preserve a past in which guys like him felt at home.

At bottom, "The Bear" interweaves the stories of two different sorts of family. In the literal one, Carmy and the Berzatto clan must face the death of their charming, beloved Mike. Although this plotline is skillfully done, building to Carmy's seven-minute monologue in the final episode, the show is actually better and more original when it centers on the dreams and conflicts inside the restaurant, where everyone from Carmy to the janitor sits down each day to eat what's called family dinner. There are lots of restaurants on TV in these food-mad days, from "Bob's Burgers" to "Hell's Kitchen," to that historical Swedish one officially titled "The Restaurant." But if you want to get a feel for what it's like to actually work at one - with its merciless stresses, oversized personalities and battlefield camaraderie - "The Bear" is the one to watch. It goes down like comfort food.

DAVIES: John Powers reviewed "The Bear," now available on Hulu. The series has been renewed for a second season. On tomorrow's show, we'll talk about a group that's little known outside Trump circles called the Conservative Partnership Institute. Journalist Maggie Severns describes the CPI as one of the most powerful political messaging forces in the MAGA universe. The article she co-wrote about it is headlined "The Insurrectionists' Clubhouse." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEL FORRESTER AND PEOPLE LIKE US' "YOUR POLITICAL MOVIE")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering help from Tina Kalikay (ph). Interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEL FORRESTER AND PEOPLE LIKE US' "YOUR POLITICAL MOVIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.