First a film, now a TV series, Boiling Point has a lot in common with the The Bear. AJ Black compares and contrasts two restaurant-based dramas.
NB: The following contains potential spoilers for Boiling Point: the movie and the first two seasons of The Bear.
Drama series and films are like buses, to paraphrase the old aphorism. Two certainly came along at once in FX’s The Bear and Boiling Point – the latter initially a film and now a TV show on the BBC. They might be separated by a continent (The Bear is from the US while Boiling Point is British) but they share plenty of the same ingredients.
Both present the restaurant kitchen as a dramatic crucible in which intense relationships are forged and sometimes sacrificed to serve a voracious customer base. The Bear, the brainchild of writer, producer, sometime editor and director Christopher Storer, was over its initial two seasons about transforming that customer base. Successful Michelin-star chef Carmen ‘Carmy’ Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) returns to his deceased brother’s sandwich shop in Chicago, and works toward opening it as an upmarket restaurant – ‘The Bear’ of the title.
The original Boiling Point film, directed and co-written by Philip Barantini (who co-creates the show with James Cummings, and returns as director for the opening episode), focuses on an already established British version of ‘The Bear’ in London, run by Andy Jones (Stephen Graham). Set on the busiest night of the year, entirely in the restaurant and shot in one continuous take, Boiling Point’s title serves as a physical and emotional reflection of Andy’s psyche as, battling numerous restaurant problems and personal demons, we witness his psychological unravelling and physical decline across the running time.
Boiling Point out of the oven first, as a feature in 2020. Both, meanwhile, also present different answers, separated by culture and approach, as to why we as audiences are fascinated by the well-known pressure cooker environment of the restaurant kitchen. Stories of intense real-life chefs such as Gordon Ramsey are legion in the UK – bellowing at his staff, berating them, channelling a desire for high standards and culinary perfection into broiled, anxiety-inducing rage. We’ve seen this brought to life on television with Ramsey himself in Hell’s Kitchen, his successful cooking reality show.
What we’re seeing with The Bear and Boiling Point is a crossover into the realm of narrative drama, away from the manufactured tension of reality TV. Not that cooking-based reality TV shows are always as extreme as Hell’s Kitchen; MasterChef and The Great British Bake Off are national institutions which are less about seeing someone psychologically exposed or humiliated. Bake Off, in particular, is a sedate cooking competition. The tension and drama, aided by jaunty music, comes from whether the cakes, rather than the contestants’ mental health, will hold together by the time they’re judged.
Nonetheless, reality shows such as these are, underneath, all about psychology. As frothy and bucolic as it may look, Bake Off lines up an array of multicultural Brits (almost to the point where there are now stock types of contestant the producers employ) who are often insecure on their abilities as a baker, which frequently feels like a reflection on their insecurities about life in general. When they’re voted out by Paul Hollywood, Prue Leith and the other judges, those eliminated at the beginning of the competition, in particular, are doomed to be forgotten in the annals of reality television (even by Bake Off viewers by the season finale). They break down in tears. They have failed.
In that sense, the kitchen is a perfect venue for a drama to explore, and The Bear and Boiling Point take these innate reality television reflections to extremes, and both approach similar concepts from different avenues. The Bear is about transforming failure into success; Carmy returns to the shop owned by his brother Mikey’s (Jon Bernthal), The Original Beef of Chicagoland, loaded with both grief at his brother’s suicide and weighed down by the debts he left behind. Carmy arrives from the cool, ordered world of ritual and deference of the elite New York restaurant scene to a maelstrom of chaos, bitterness and vindictiveness, most aptly demonstrated by Mikey’s best friend, his ‘cousin’ Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) a gregarious Italian-American fuelled by grief, rage and a sense of entitlement.
Storer’s narrative across the first two seasons of The Bear is about teamwork and transformation. Carmy struggles to bring order to a team who loved Mikey but he didn’t nurture effectively over time as a collective unit, making the most of their natural talents. When Carmy institutes change to a frenetic kitchen filled with corners cut that bring the wrath of the food standards department down on them, he finds initial resistance, especially from Richie. Carmy might come from clean lines, but he retains the fiery temperament of his brother and his Italian-American lineage, clashing almost violently with Richie as he seeks to make the sandwich shop more efficient.
In contrast, Andy’s restaurant, Jones and Sons, has reached the top already. Where The Bear is about success and attainment, as is the traditional American story, Boiling Point is about cracks showing in the confection, reflecting a greater British staple of depicting the collapse of success. Andy is ready to blow, not pulling his weight around the restaurant, attempting to hide alcohol addiction from staff who can see through it, and generally reliant on a strong team whom he berates while he also lets them down. Andy, in some respects, is a mirror of Mikey before he took his own life. By all accounts, Mikey was loved by his team even as he ran them into the ground, but both men were in a spiral due to the pressure of not living up to what the role demanded.
Stylistically, both series approach how to portray these kitchens differently. The Bear often evokes a 1970s aesthetic, a cinematic grit and big city Americana, with an Italian-American world just south of Martin Scorsese or even David Chase’s The Sopranos. Boiling Point, in contrast, has a documentarian sense of motion; a roaming camera that feels invasive and intimate where The Bear is oppressive and frenetic. They nonetheless share an awareness of the social fabric of their nations. Boiling Point plays with class, given Andy and Carly are both from the north, often serving wealthy cosmopolitan London diners or even international visitors. The Bear sees Carmy cross a class barrier, moving backwards from elite dining to the working class immigrant America he grew up in. Reconnecting with those roots forms part of his own personal development and acceptance of his grief over Mikey.
In both cases, however, the head chefs have a similar character to temper their wildest impulses. Carmy has Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), a skilled and ambitious intern who wants to learn from him, absorb his knowledge, but who steadily becomes his emotional and psychological check as she finds the man doesn’t always live up to the legend. Conversely, Andy has Carly (Vinette Robinson), a solid right-hand woman who keeps the kitchen consolidated and moving as Andy floats in and out, unable to contain his mounting pressures and issues. He berates those in his kitchen while working to appeal to ‘influencers’ who try and scrape a free meal, allowing the system to overbook due to his negligence. Carmy in one episode does much the same with booking, causing tensions to overflow.
Both Syd and Carly have a similar arc during these stories. Both reach a point where they are no longer prepared to put up with the wild swings of these ‘brilliant’ men, caught up in their own ego and passion. Syd ends up briefly leaving Carmy’s employ, while Carly ultimately blows in the film, spilling out all of her frustrations and anxieties in a devastating monologue. “You talk to us all like we’re the dirt on the bottom of your fucking shoe. Well, I’ll tell you something, love, I’ve had enough of it. I do not fucking like you. They don’t like you. Nobody likes you. And this job is not worth it. I do not get paid enough to deal with this shit.”
That both Carmy and Andy are white, and Syd and Carly are both of colour, feels an interesting and intentional choice. They perhaps reflect the future – a measured, multicultural ethos built on talent, as opposed to the narcissism of the entitled white male.
Perhaps this will be born out in future explorations of these thematically linked stories. The Boiling Point television show makes Carly the protagonist, with Andy – recovering from what appeared to be a fatal heart-attack at the end of the film as the pressure blew – a secondary player. The presumed third season of The Bear, with the new restaurant having launched, will see Carmy motivated to make it into one of Chicago’s finest restaurants with Syd’s support, albeit at the seeming expense of a loving relationship with someone. If Andy ends the film physically weakened, Carmy in The Bear is psychologically still wounded, obsessed by seeking perfection.
As audiences, we are drawn to intense environments such as these, hence why in both reality TV and fiction they make for often great (and in the case of The Bear, pop culture baiting successful) drama. Nonetheless, what’s more cathartic and satisfying is the idea of people at the heart of these crucibles finding peace and acceptance. Boiling Point and The Bear both circle around broken, tortured but talented individuals, and both series will ultimately, no doubt, be about repair. What they tell us is that no man is an island and no woman can simply be there as a prop.
They tell us that teamwork, respect for your peers, and nurture of skill and passion, are the key not just to success but also better physical and mental health. Isn’t that something we should all strive for? Yes, chef.
Boiling Point is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer. The Bear seasons one and two can be streamed from Disney+ in the UK.
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