Hulu's 'The Bear' and the contradictions of work

Hulu's 'The Bear' and the contradictions of work
Image via screengrab.

Hulu’s The Bear takes viewers inside a hectic, crowded and struggling Chicago sandwich shop that Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen Wright) inherited from his brother, Michael, who has committed suicide.

The store is a chaotic mess and deep in debt, but Michael’s best friend Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and most of the longtime staffers want to keep his “system” in place. Carmy left a career as a James Beard award-winning chef to fix things. His first act is to hire a young professionally-trained chef, Sydney (Ayo Edibri) as sous chef.

The Chicago setting (city of big shoulders, hog-butcher to the world), the shop’s identification as home of the “Original Beef of Chicagoland,” and the gritty, sweaty, noisy work make for a clearly working-class story. The series has drawn acclaim for its writing, performances and depiction of food service work. Restaurant workers have chimed in on Twitter and in comments on reviews to highlight how well The Bear captures life in the kitchen.

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An old, struggling restaurant is an ideal setting for a series about work, and it proves useful for exploring how work has – and has not – changed over time, and how workers feel about their jobs.

It captures aspects of the industrial economy that were long typical of working-class work and the service economy that has become dominant. While much has been made of the differences between them, The Bear makes clear that they have much in common.

Stress, noise, regimentation and surveillance, physical dangers, and economic precarity make kitchen labor a lot like factory work.

In a New York Times Magazine essay, Carina Chocano describes the series as a commentary on the problems of contemporary work – long hours, overwhelming stress, conflicts over control and economic precarity. What we see in the shop reflects the state of an economy where everyone is “in survival mode all the time.”

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For Chocano, The Bear demonstrates that, “The notion that hustle will eventually pay off is an insidious pipe dream.” That dream drives the gig economy, freelancing and entrepreneurship, but the promises are often false. The Bear highlights that tension through flashbacks that show the demeaning surveillance that Carmy encountered in elite restaurants and the contrast between Sydney’s vision of being her own boss and the challenges of running an independent catering business. Both still have nightmares about those experiences.

The tension between workers’ desire to control their labor and the efficiency of hierarchical structure is a central theme in the series.

To fix Michael’s system, Carmy assigns Sydney to implement a “brigade,” a rigidly-defined set of roles and rules that make the crowded, stressful kitchen operate something like an assembly line. Each worker has a specific responsibility, and the lines of authority are strictly enforced. Whether the brigade represents a speed up or just unwelcome regimentation, longtime workers resist.

Like automobile workers at the GM Lordstown plant in the 1970s, line cooks express their disdain through sabotage – though in this they end up targeting each other rather than the shop’s management.

For Sophie Gilbert, writing in The Atlantic, the brigade reflects “the ways in which men and male-dominated cultures are set up to fail.” She views it as toxic masculinity, like boardrooms and criminal gangs. Top-down structures, she writes, “poison” these sites “from within.”

In the series, however, the brigade helps run things more smoothly. Gender is involved here, not because of the men’s struggles, but because it is a young Black woman who makes the brigade work.

The brigade faces bigger problems, though. The building that houses the restaurant is deteriorating, equipment keeps breaking down, the neighborhood is gentrifying and the pandemic disrupts business.

“The system has failed,” Chocano wrote. “The place is unfixable.”

Yet the workers refuse to give up.

That’s what makes this series so compelling – and timely.

In this period of the “great resignation” and “quiet quitting,” when so many workers seem to have decided that their jobs are not fulfilling or worth the money, The Bear depicts a crew of workers deeply committed to “this shitty old restaurant,” as one reviewer put it.

Why?

It isn’t that they believe hustle will bring success. The characters understand from the beginning that their best hope, one that is probably out of reach, is to get out of debt and keep the place open.

The answers are visible from the first. Between trying to raise enough money to keep the place open for another day and arguing with the staff, Carmy makes his first batch of Italian beef.

As he offers tastes to the staff, we see their pleasure at how good it is. That matters to them. They might resist Carmy’s changes and resent Sydney’s authority, but they care about the work itself.

That’s why Sydney and the pastry chef invest extra time to create new dishes. Chocano notes that Carmy “can’t spare time” to pay attention, but all three characters recognize the value of the effort.

That their efforts can’t compete with the challenges of just getting through each stressful shift doesn’t erase the underlying engagement with work that is not just hard but often seemingly impossible.

Workers are committed to each other as well as Michael’s memory. For all the conflict that the work generates, one of its important benefits is human connection. The first episode highlights this.

We see the solidarity of the longtime staff in their resistance to the arrival of Carmy and Sydney, but also in their interactions. We hear it in the way they talk to each other. Reviewers tell us that the yelling and insults seem to compound the stress and conflict. But trash-talk is, or can be, an expression of love among working-class men.

To make sure middle-class viewers don’t miss this point, the first episode includes a scene where the crew gathers for a family meal and do a light-hearted version of the Thanksgiving table ritual.

While Richie says he’s grateful for Phillip K. Dick, the pastry chef expresses appreciation that Richie didn’t put on his smelly cologne that morning, line cook Tina (in a great performance by Liza Colón-Zayas) confesses, a little embarrassed, that she’s grateful “for all you mofos.” The others tease her, but the affection is clear.

As all this suggests, reviewers like Chocano and Gilbert are right to see The Bear as a reflection of contemporary work cultures.

But as workers express their discontent in multiple ways, it’s worth noting that The Bear also helps us see the struggles that make work difficult as well as the commitments that make it meaningful.

To understand why work matters, and what workers might long for, we have to recognize both sides of this contradictory balance sheet.

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