The Bear: At Last, A Chicago Show For People Who Are Not From Chicago And Have Never Stepped Foot There
TV reviews, TV opinions and also sometimes other opinions
This post is about the FX show The Bear, which debuted in its entirety today! I guess there are spoilers below, but it’s not really a show that can be spoiled. It’s more an experience than something with a plot. But, I don’t give any major twists away.
If you’ve been reading me long enough, I shouldn’t need to explain my Illinois credentials. I’ve been profiled by Dekalb’s own Northern Public Radio, I’m a proud Rockfordian and true daughter of Northern Illinois, and while I know better than to claim Chicago (I did not go to high school there, the true badge of honor), I think my stepdad raising me there part time and my time as a writer for the Chicago Reader and The A.V. Club when I lived there for 7 years give me some perspective on the city.
Also I was voted 2017’s Second Best Chicagoan to Follow on Twitter (but, as my friends who went to high school in Chicago said: “You should feel lucky you got second, you’re not even a real Chicagoan.” Absolutely fair!) so, I don’t know, I know the place okay!
So, when I heard about The Bear, a new FX show set in Chicago about the stressful lives of service workers, I was immediately in. The Midwest and Chicago are desperate for accurate representation and I embrace all attempts. I watched all of Chicago Party Aunt, Easy, Shameless and Work in Progress. Those shows had varying levels of success, but mostly did well at sticking to the neighborhoods they knew. Work in Progress embraced Chicago’s queer (mostly white) north side. Shameless, took on Back of the Yards (and was good at it for a season!). Easy took on the northwest hipster neighborhoods and Chicago Party Aunt was just as annoying as Wrigleyville actually is!
None of these shows were perfect, but they showed care for the neighborhoods and stories they wanted to tell. When it comes to TV, Chicago always gets lost in translation. That is, until Comedy Central’s South Side came out and I realized it is absolutely possible to do the city justice in its entirety! Maybe if The Bear had come out in a pre-South Side world, I would have more tolerance for the foolery at hand, but, I have seen the promise land of Good Chicago TV and I will not be tricked by Jeremy Allen White’s face again. He burned through those chances with Shameless.
And let me be clear: Nothing wrong with The Bear has anything to do with its actors. Every performance is great. Everyone showed up ready to do the thing and they did! It was the power of the performances that got me through all 8 episodes because the actual plot makes no sense, unless you are someone who has never set foot in the city of Chicago and know nothing about it. It is common for people from the suburbs or Evanston/Northwestern to try and claim Chicago, but any attempt to do that only showcases how little you actually know about the place.
The Bear is a perfect example of that. It tries to speak in Chicago shorthand that only comes off as corny and desperate to anyone who has lived here (Malort billboards in River North, Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” and so much goddamn Wilco plays, a sly reference to “not using tomatoes” (which I think is supposed to be about not using ketchup, because obviously a Chicago hotdog place would use tomatoes?). It does not speak Chicago in any of the ways that matter: neighborhood, class, segregation, race…these things dissolve away in favor of a supposed shared love of the White Sox. Since The Bear never tells us where any of these people live, I guess this is supposed to let us know they’re all mostly from the west/south side probably?
Sydney, a character who is apparently a Chicago native whose dad frequented Mr. Beef, goes in to apply for a job as the sous chef. Yes, apparently, a Chicago Italian beef and hot dog stand has a sous chef. This is also a hotdog stand where they do family, restaurant slang for a “family meal” cooked for/by employees, which is not something this type of place would do, but you can tell the writers interviewed one service worker who used this term, thought it was so cool and decided to run it into the ground.
And even though Sydney trained at a fancy culinary school and lives off the pink line, it somehow makes more sense for her to apply at Mr. Beef than any of the fancy James Beard restaurants in West Loop. In The Bear’s fantasyland of Chicago those places can’t exist. What Sydney is doing (making a short rib with risotto…) is revolutionary! The paper even writes about it. This Chicago is all midwest bumpkins who have never dreamed of tasting risotto. A worker at Mr. Beef complains that the area they’re in is a “delicate ecosystem” that can’t be gentrified with things like Sydney’s short rib!
Except…this Mr. Beef (like the real one) is in River North. River North! If you know Chicago, you probably broke out laughing when you realized this guy is trying to say River North is a delicate ecosystem that can’t be “gentrified.” If you don’t know Chicago (like most of the critics who wrote about The Bear), I guess you would buy this! But, River North is home to the Rainforest Cafe. River North is home to some of the most expensive restaurants in Chicago. It is not really an area of the city where real people live, it is mostly where people commute to work and you leave as fast as you can because it costs $10 a minute to even breathe over there.
River North is basically “The Loop North.” It is for tourists and transplants who want to live close to their office jobs. River North was gentrified a long time ago. I know the people who wrote this show went to Northwestern because that’s the only way you’d think River North is “real” Chicago and not a place where the workers in that restaurant would be booking it to get on the bus and away from drunk people on their way to Bottled Blonde (RIP). Oh, and the show makes sure to let us know it is set post-Covid, so…this isn’t the 1970s, the last time River North could’ve possibly been considered “gritty” (by 1977, River North had the largest concentration of art galleries outside of Manhattan, this is not an area known for siding with the working man!)
Mr. Beef is walking distance from the Google office I worked at! It is a block from The Onion office where I worked! It is also walking distance from the Protein Bar where I worked as a service worker! Basically, it is an area I know particularly well as I was one of those low paid workers who could barely afford to eat lunch at most places in River North. I know that Mr. Beef well because it is one of the few affordable meals in the area that isn’t fast food (if you order through the app and use paypal at the Starbucks at Franklin and Chicago, you can get food ASAP, but it will overdraft your bank account.) Mr. Beef is a “no frills” Chicago spot that has lasted through the gentrification of River North because actual people can afford to eat there.
So, I thought The Bear would be about that! An Italian beef place struggling to survive in the face of yoga studios, farm-to-table restaurants and the West Loop restaurant boom! But no! It turns out this is an alternate reality of River North where the area hasn’t been gentrified (People shoot guns around white people and no one calls the cops? They start a street grill fire? There are italian gang fights in the street??). It’s nothing like the real River North and somehow turning Mr. Beef into a risotto-serving restaurant with a bar is supposed to be a good thing! Why? I have no idea! It’s Sydney’s idea, but it’s kind of a dumb one if Sydney is really a Chicagoan with a knowledge of the city! Why would she suggest turning Mr. Beef into a fancy restaurant when there are 20 5-star fancy restaurants within a mile radius and affordability is why Mr. Beef has sustained so long?
It’s because this show does not give a shit about Chicago. It uses Chicago as shorthand for “these characters are REAL and GRITTY” without ever actually showing us that. It would’ve been easy enough to make Sydney an Evanston-outsider with a love of fine dining who tries to implement the wrong changes, but instead she’s treated like a wunderkind who should probably just go pick up a shift at Longman and Eagle and leave these people alone. It also would’ve been easy enough to have these “cousins” (and…Sydney’s confusion over play cousins…just…make her a transplant…) run a Polish restaurant in Avondale so the gentrification thing would be a little more relevant, but no! Instead, they stick with River North as a gangbanging, fights in the streets, “you can shoot a gun and no one will care” free for all.
At that point, I embraced The Bear as a comedy. Once I did that, I could suspend my disbelief and simply laugh when service workers were SHOCKED that one of them was selling coke. If you are from Illinois, you will absolutely laugh at lines like “Nerds from Rockford come all the way to River North to play our videogames” (that is a 2 hour drive, no we do not, the city you were looking for was Naperville.) If The Bear was meant to be an inside joke among Chicagoans about how people from the suburbs hilariously misrepresent and misunderstand the city, it nailed that.
This is also probably why LA and NYC critics were locked in debate over whether the show is a comedy or drama. They could not see the inherent joke that is a malort billboard sitting on top of a River North restaurant. They are writing reviews praising it - the Sufjan songs, the shots of the “subway” (shudder!!!!), the random shots of Obama - because they don’t know enough to laugh at all of this! The Bear was created with this audience in mind. It was made to impress them and not a damn person who lives in Chicago.
It wouldn’t annoy me so damn much if it didn’t also insist on wearing its Chicago pride like a 773 tattoo on the bicep of someone who grew up in Aurora.
Also (some of this is absolutely nitpicky, but I need to scream):
-Of course a service worker would go to a bar at 6:45am, that’s why Chicago has 7am bars, that is not weird or a sign that this character is off the rails!
-There is a Chicago accent and some people nail it in the show and some people do not even try and it is okay to let those people be transplants, because transplants are also a vital and important part of Chicago!! I am one of them!! It is okay, all your characters don’t need to be born by the banks of the Chicago River to be authentic!!
-Let me reiterate: There is no fucking world where nerds from Rockford (of which I am one) would drive to River fucking North for anything. Madison, Beloit - this is where we steal away for trivia and video games. And for free italian ice? God, this show thinks we’re Midwest bumpkins. Absolute idiots. Rockford is home of the granita, why would we go to RIVER NORTH for italian ice…you know what, I need to calm down.
-If you ever make a show about Chicago and you use Sufjan’s “Chicago,” a song about a fucking roadtrip from New York, instead of a Kanye song or ANY song by a black Chicago artist, you need to look around the room and ask yourself what are you doing?
-NO ONE IS GOING TO MR. BEEF FOR RISOTTO. Who am I supposed to root for here?! The people who want to take an affordable restaurant in a rich ass neighborhood and turn it into another rich ass restaurant!?
-Having the Latina character constantly say “Jeff” because she can’t say “Chef” even though she’s worked in a restaurant for over 30 years was weird? Like, it never becomes a nickname or inside joke because she still corrects herself with “Chef” even near the end of the season? So like…what? You think she hasn’t heard the word “Chef?” Working in River North? For 30 years? The show is so focused on making these people seem dumb and “quaint.”
-We sort of see the commutes of the people of color who work in the restaurant, but none of them are ever situated as living in an actual neighborhood. No one ever asks where someone went to high school. Humboldt is Lawndale is Pilsen to this show, but all of those things could be used to better define the characters of color!
-Ok, I just need to stop. But this just isn’t acceptable when so many skilled Chicago writers are available to write for you or do punch-ups on your scripts so you don’t make me laugh during a scene that is supposed to be high drama!
I've got to say, some of this stuff is extremely nit-picky, and other parts are just wrong.
First, the party for the kids is when they get into the whole no ketchup on hot dogs thing, and they do it in the correct ridiculous way people do it here. The tomato thing is about a fine dining chef not wanting to make garbage tomato sauce despite it being the tradition and well-loved.
Second, River North is extremely more complicated than you're giving it credit for. Parts of the neighborhood west of LaSalle are nothing like the area you're talking about east of LaSalle. I think the actual vibe of the area they depict in the show is more River West-ish or West Town than River North, but that neighborhood west of LaSalle is again nothing like you're claiming it is. It's honestly not that off in terms of depiction for areas west of LaSalle and around Grand. The gentrification thing is relevant in terms of places like this being the absolute last holdout in an area. There are a lot of beef/hot dog places, and corner bars, including in River North, where that's absolutely true.
Third, the Malort billboard for sure is a bit on the nose. But, Malort IS advertised heavily in all of Chicago now, including in River North. Honestly, it's not that out of character for the city now, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see a Malort billboard even in River North.
I’m so glad you wrote out all the things I was thinking. Now to be fair, I couldn’t get past the fourth episode because it was THAT ridiculous to me. But yes, yes to everything you said. And since we all have to read off our credentials: born and raised on the south side, have been in Hyde park since 2000, and have worked in South Shore, Andersonville, Lincoln park and the Gold Coast so. I’m not talkin outta my neck when I say this show is SILLYYYY. It felt like someone watched all of the aforementioned chicago shows from your post (save for Southside), along with some VICE videos on gentrification and whipped up this goofy show. It seriously feels like a parody!! In ep 1 when ole dude (cousin??) pulls out a GUN and fires a warning shot into the air to calm the sea of costume wearing Rockford nerds, I actually laughed out loud. I don’t know what city these people are living in, but it ain’t chicago. This just feels like another unsuccessful attempt to showcase the vast and varied culture, nuances and history of Chicago without actually consulting with people…FROM chicago. The whole thing just felt very forced and inauthentic. I appreciate your review and am glad there’s someone else out there that was scratching their head through this show.