You’d be forgiven if you thought “The Bear” was going to be some kind of shameless “Shameless” spinoff. The winning new series, whose eight episodes will be available Thursday on Hulu, stars Jeremy Allen White, the fine actor who played Lip on “Shameless.” His new character, Chef Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, has returned from a glorious New York career to Chicago — the setting of “Shameless” — to run his family’s restaurant, The Original Beef of Chicagoland, after the suicide of his brother. Like Lip, Carmy is sullen, intelligent, scrappy, and trying to find his way out of a complicated youth.
“The Bear,” however, is very much its own beast. The half-hour episodes have a distinctive spirit — a kitchen-centric locale, a dramatic mood with a side of black comedy, some overlapping dialogue, and a sometimes surreal but always fast-paced feel. Created by Christopher Storer of “Ramy,” the show captures the pressure cooker that can be a restaurant staff once the doors open, and it’s driven forward by masterful, ever-moving camerawork that turns the tight, grimy Original Beef kitchen and its endless stacks of dishes into a world of its own.
Carmy is grieving his brother, as is his sister, Abby Elliott’s Sugar, but he is determined to make something of Original Beef. His great ambitions — Eater, we’re told, named him one of the world’s best chefs — are met with shoulder shrugs and worse by the staff, who are accustomed to mediocrity and chaos. As Carmy nudges them, he is met with grudging respect by some of the veterans, and by open hostility from Richie (a convincingly belligerent Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who has been manager for a long time despite his bad temper and sloppy methods. Determined, Carmy tries to put the books in order — despite one glaring debt in particular — and he plots to improve the workplace culture.
There are tonal flaws here and there, particularly when the script pushes us too hard to view Carmy’s mission as heroic. At moments, “The Bear” unexpectedly reminded me of an Aaron Sorkin show, from the self-seriousness and the overly rhythmic dialogue (punctuated, in this case, with “chef” at the end and beginning of every sentence) to the overbearing sense of idealism and of the good in all men. Oh Captain! My Captain! The omelet we cooked is done!
The cast is consistently strong, including a memorable breakout turn by Ayo Edebiri as a new hire Carmy hopes will help turn everything around. Edebiri’s Sydney is the opposite of Richie; she’s smart, young, experienced, and eager to be mentored by Carmy. She’s as calm and collected as Richie is loud and explosive, and she bears Richie’s harassment, thanks to Edebiri’s light touch, with a grace that is at once infuriating and moving. A trained chef, Sydney is loaded with ideas about how to improve the menu, but she needs to cultivate the support of the other workers, including Tina (Liza Colon-Zayas), Ebraheim (Edwin Lee Gibson), and Marcus (Lionel Boyce), an endearing pastry chef who takes Carmy’s inspiration to heart. She is impatient, and has her own lessons to learn.
The ensemble chemistry gels quickly on “The Bear,” as the frenzied atmosphere draws unedited thoughts and feelings out of the staffers. Once they start to recognize Carmy’s brilliance, and let go of his late brother’s disorganized ways, their banter and mutual support is even sweeter. The first season fails to fully integrate Elliott into the story line, which is a shame; her scenes with White are charged, as they cope with the aftermath of suicide. But the show is so filled with good work that hardly matters in the long run. All in all, “The Bear” is [chef’s kiss].
Starring: Jeremy Allen White, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Abby Elliott, Liza Colon-Zayas, Ayo Edebiri, Lionel Boyce
On: Hulu. Streams Thursday