BY MATTHEW RYAN
Almost everyone loves The Bear 2022. It’s the sort of streaming TV series that people convert to and are fervent about. The Bear is Disney’s marquee show for its subscription service in Australia. It’s the kind of show for which the Guardian announces a second season with catch phrases and initiate-knowledge: “Yes, Chef!”, “Cousin, Cousin, Cousin!” People presume you’re already in.
Christopher Storer’s The Bear is set in a Chicago greasy spoon that serves a neighbourhood-famous Italian-American beef sandwich. The series begins as Carmen Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White playing a tormented Buster-Keaton-style deadpan) inherits The Original Beef from his older brother, who has committed suicide. Carmen is an haute cuisine chef who has left behind a Michelin-star career in New York to run the family joint. Describing the premise this way, it sounds like a predictable set-up for some fish-out-of-water comedy with family trauma added for emotional heft. The Bear certainly enters that territory. Flashbacks of the unfolding relationships with the dead brother and the practical love of Carmen’s living sister, Sugar (Abbie Elliott), are moving. And the slow revelation of their mother (a terrifying star turn by Jamie Lee Curtis) provides a portrait of an unhappy family that would satisfy Tolstoy. But, the rapid edits and jagged shot composition, the hot evocation of kitchen confrontation, and the wry writing make this more than the familiar set-up might suggest. The most compelling element of The Bear is the way it presents people trying to make work meaningful.
Recently, the way we see work has taken some new turns. The COVID-19 lockdowns were a prompt for changes in people’s work practices: how much we work, or the kinds of social value attributed to work. Many people are working from home and changing the focus and culture of the workplace. This change also has introduced a new level of autonomy for some workers. They have developed a taste for the self-regulation of couch and dog over the surveillance of cubicle and desk. COVID-19 could be the catalyst rather than the cause of this change. Are we seeing the slow dawn of the leisure society that we were promised so long ago? For a long time, the machinery that allowed greater productivity has been used not to free us from work, but rather to enable yet more production.
The kitchen crew at The Original Beef are drawn from the large pool of so-called unskilled labour. They are migrants and minimum-wage workers, who have settled into the grooves of their hot and greasy stations. Their work-life is sustained by familiarity, camaraderie, and banter. The Beef is a better place to work than McDonald’s, as Marcus (Lionel Boyce), the doughnut-obsessed baker, tells us. The Beef is worn and familiar, where McDonald’s is clinical and uniform.
But the audience for The Bear—who enjoy the Guardian’s jokes—are, I suspect, a different set. They are likely working in the knowledge economy, where the COVID-19 disruption was the most recent prompt to reappraise the vocational or identity-endowing character of work. In this group, a more gradual change in the value of their work has preceded the recent scaling back of work hours or the ‘great resignation’. The long march of neoliberalism had already found its way into their workplaces when COVID-19 brought its more pointed changes of perspective. In the university, for example, knowledge workers have seen their work, once organised around collegiality and cooperation, shifted into the frame of market principles like output measurement and competition. Education has changed in value from social good to consumer good, indistinguishable from other commodities. The knowledge workers watching The Bear would recognise the McDonaldisation of their work and might share Marcus’s desire to have the space and time to produce beautiful doughnuts.
For those knowledge workers, part of the appeal of The Bear might also be Carmen’s step back from anxiety-inducing “world class” cuisine. They would recognise the desire for a more collaborative and locally focussed form of work. Carmen’s flashbacks to those gleaming New York kitchens and their micromanaged procedures would surely ring the service bell of memory for this audience. They would recall other managerialist humiliations and the shame of their own precarity-induced cut-throat competitiveness. Carmen has made the break. He is making a new way of working for himself and for the rest of the crew. There is plenty that goes wrong in trying to realise this desire, but that utopian will flickers here like the pilot light of an ancient stove.
A new restaurant is emerging: The Original Beef is becoming The Bear. The old favourite sandwich will still be available from a side hatch, while a new menu will be provided inside. The crew will keep their jobs or take on new skills as they are able, while new blood rejuvenates the kitchen. The Bear offers the hope of development without exclusion, ambition without competition, excellence for its own sake. In short, it plays out the desire for non-alienated labour. When the third season comes, we’ll probably see the restaurant fail. The psychodrama of the family will trip them up and debt will chase them down. But the desire for meaningful, cooperative, and productive work will remain. So, we’ll see other articulations of that hope on TV, or in art or literature, until we are able to make our own beautiful doughnuts.