a man in a blue chef's apron sits on a metal restaurant table
Courtesy FX

In 2020, Netflix released a cinematic adaptation of J.D. Vance’s histrionic and ragingly inaccurate hit memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. Unlike the book, the movie’s hacky, reactionary provocations about the nature of Middle America failed to catch on—it was critically panned, and is now mostly remembered (if at all) for how it featured its star Glenn Close embarrassingly bending toward Oscar glory, in one of the most reliably clichéd ways there is. A rich, famous, beautiful person with the talent to inhabit a great many of humanity’s varieties took a big prestige swing by being . . . unconvincingly poor, old, and ugly. It was the kind of award bait rightly understood as on par with a Halloween costume tasteless enough to make you leave the party early.

Hulu’s The Bear does not do quite the level of injustice to Chicago as Hillbilly Elegy does to its austerity-stricken Rust Belt world, but it’s not especially far from such sins. Centered around a broken young man (Jeremy Allen White, of Shameless fame) who also happens to be a promising, James Beard-tier chef, The Bear is about its tragic protagonist coming back home after his brother’s suicide to rehabilitate his family’s failing Italian beef business—but also the demons within him. Largely well-acted, definitely pleasantly lit, and starring attractive people to boot, the show has been a buzzy summer smash. Metacritic scores its accrued reviews at an 86/100 mark, landing it under the “universal acclaim” umbrella, and over at Rotten Tomatoes, where praise inflation reigns, it enjoys a perfect 100 percent with critics, and is not far behind at 93 percent when it comes to audience ratings. GQ called it “The Great Chicago TV Show.”

Many on the local side, however, disagree. Surely, Chicagoans are prejudiced when it comes to the show. This bias can swing toward two extremes: either the serotonin hits of basic screen recognition send you into untouchable sublimity, or your more exact understanding of Chicago’s contours is too distracting for you to enjoy it at all. The Bear‘s conspicuous not-Chicagoisms could fill this whole article, but won’t. Here are some, though: Italian beef restaurants of that size don’t have that many employees; you can’t really make that stuff over coals; casual White Sox fans in their 20s do not know who Minnie Miñoso is; Malört doesn’t advertise like that, and definitely not there; this place would never have a sous-chef; sous-chef Sydney’s commute doesn’t make any sense; also, if she lived there, she would be rich, neighbor to exiting multi-billionaire Ken Griffin, who would never step foot in a mid-gentrification neighborhood like the fairy tale River North that The Bear takes place in.

Ultimately, whether the show is any good does not depend on how well it “gets” Chicago, on a logistical or even cultural level, but on whether it is entertaining or not. (This is meaningfully less the case in the example of The Bear, to be sure, given how explicitly it stakes its aesthetic and emotional value in the portrayal of a city.) No amount of errors, factual or characteristic, can prevent audiences from enjoying The Bear, as clearly they haven’t. There is something in it—likely to do with its generally looking good, and a broad hunger for detailed stories about people who work with food—that is loved.

That’s all good and fine, because there are some nice Bear scenes in which the difficulties of making unique, delicious flavors are passable metaphors for yeoman struggles and the ebb and flow of challenging relationships. But the sociocultural pathology at the root of The Bear‘s premise smacks of the same loud, anti-reality narratives about Chicago that are so unfortunately strong in the national political imagination. The city certainly has its pockets that sadly fit the bill of maladjusted, stuck-in-the-past post-industrial desertion (personified in The Bear by the criminally grating Ebon Moss-Bachrach; more on him in a bit), but make no mistake: it remains a nexus of American capitalism, a thriving urban stronghold full of wealth, tons of culture—including a food scene that is not exactly short on cutting-edge methods—and many other lasting civic models. It is not one of those truly tragic, once-great cities that never adapted to late-20th-century conditions and is now half-occupied, with hauntingly anachronistic provinces. The creators of The Bear could have chosen many more appropriate settings for this wannabe Tennessee Williams arena of stalled-out yelling men, but a large market like Chicago, with such a big built-in audience for streaming, seemed to be too appealing a course for them.

Moss-Bachrach, playing one of television’s more memorably unwatchable men, most exemplifies how wrongly The Bear thinks about its setting, abusing his idea of the Chicago accent like an amateur guitarist diddling through his scales over and over again—reaching for Brando, but landing closer to Tommy Wiseau. The rest of the cast is notably better, but what they’ve been set up to do is inhabit a convenient-if-wrong shorthand about a broad heartland happening. In the process, they end up looking more like what they are: coastal actors, rehearsing how to be normal people in a world that they’ve heard about, and that they are dying to demonstrate their understanding of. If The Bear was meant as a surreal comedy about people stuck in a poorly executed blue-collar trope—and at times, probably incidentally, it does hit that uncanny melodic register—then bravo. But by its cloying, dubious triumphalist ending, it’s hard to believe that’s what they were going for.