As part of my ongoing reinvention as a guy who has vaguely informed opinions about popular television — you might call it a New Year's resolution, except that I don't recall any moment at which I made a conscious decision to travel down this path — I present to you this month a pair of 2022 TV shows that I feel made the best symbolic use of food.
These are both excellent shows in a vacuum, even ignoring their deployment of the culinary arts, and among my favorites of the year. But because my metamorphosis into an educated TV viewer is still in progress, I acknowledge that I may have missed some even better examples. (Year-end lists of food on TV include stuff like "The Dropout" and "Los Espookys" that I simply did not make time for last year.) All I can do is share my own perspective, though, and I hope you enjoy it.
Saying that this show “uses food,” as I implicitly just have, is like saying the ocean uses water. “The Bear” takes place in a restaurant and spends most of its time in its kitchen. Nonetheless, there are a few specific examples I can highlight.
One of the key emotional threads of the season centers on renowned chef Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) coming to grips with his brother Mikey’s (Jon Bernthal, in flashbacks) death by suicide, largely through the process of taking over Mikey’s struggling beef sandwich restaurant, the Original Beef of Chicagoland. His relationship to the Beef’s seemingly out-of-place spaghetti offering — which he immediately axes from the menu in the pilot, only to circle back to as the eight-episode season wears on — serves as an effective stand-in for his relationship for Mikey.
There’s also the case of Marcus (Lionel Boyce) and his idealistic pursuit of the perfect doughnut. A green but eager baker, Marcus finds that Carmy is willing to encourage his passion up to a point — and at that point, it begins to bring him into conflict with the restaurant’s day-to-day needs. That’s one of a few simmering conflicts that come to a head in the penultimate episode “Review,” which was probably the best thing I saw on television all year. And I thought that even before I learned that it was shot in one take, so props to director and show creator Christopher Storer.
‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’
A miniseries adaptation of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s novel of the same name, “Fleishman” considers how a glut of male-centric media has influenced the way we view relationships by giving Libby (Lizzy Caplan) the chance to narrate the story of her friend Toby Fleishman’s (Jesse Eisenberg) divorce from his wife, Rachel, and how Rachel’s sudden disappearance makes it much more complex. In the process, Libby begins to contemplate her own stagnant marriage.
I don’t want to spoil too much of the show and how it deals with perspective shifts, but I will say enough to explain the food symbolism. Midway through the series, Toby discovers in Rachel’s empty apartment scattered, nearly full takeout boxes of beef lo mein, a food he knows she doesn’t like. From the lo mein and other out-of-place objects like medication and marijuana edibles, Toby concludes that Rachel is seeing another man — specifically, his acquaintance Sam Rothberg, for whom she had previously expressed her admiration — and gets angry thinking about it.
Only when we much later hear Rachel’s side of the story do we learn that she had at that time already been summarily dumped by Rothberg, which combined with Toby’s own dismissive treatment sent her into a mental breakdown. In a haze, she repeatedly ordered but did not eat the lo mein, recalling a serially dieting college roommate who always asked for it when she had decided to give up. The disparity between Toby’s anger at the out-of-place lo mein and its actual origins typifies the point-of-view issues at the heart of the show.
Reporter Henry Greenstein can be reached at 661-395-7374. Follow him on Twitter: @HenryGreenstein.
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