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How ‘The Bear’ Became The Surprise Hit Of The Summer

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We all knew that Stranger Things 4 would be the show of the summer, but no one could have predicted this season’s other giant hit: FX’s The Bear. On June 23, FX quietly dropped all eight episodes in the comedy-drama’s first season on Hulu. In the weeks since, this series about the thrill and hell of the restaurant industry has taken on a life of its own. There have been glowing reviews, interviews with real-life chefs, high-profile photoshoots, and thirst posts. Boy, have there been thirst posts.

Any time a show exclusive to streaming blows up the way The Bear has, it’s worth a raised eyebrow. Is this show a true hit or more of a Twitter novelty? And if it is a hit, why? Every year, dozens of exceptional shows are canceled before they find their audience. Why did The Bear break through the noise when others couldn’t? Due to the secrecy of streaming, we may never know these answers for sure, but we have some theories.

Is The Bear FX and Hulu’s Most Successful Collaboration?

There is no doubt that The Bear has been a massive success for FX. The series has a staggering 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes with 41 reviews and has already been renewed for a Season 2. Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, and the New York Times all gave it glowing reviews. The dramedy’s stars — Jeremy Allen White and Ayo Edebiri — were even the subjects of a recent Vanity Fair profile. But how successful is The Bear really? Is it a genuine nationwide hit? Or is it a show with an audience confined to those in New York and Los Angeles’ media bubbles?

The Bear Is Likely FX’s Most Watched Half-Hour Show to Date

This isn’t a creative proclamation on our end. This is a fact that came from Chairman of FX John Landgraf himself. During the Television Critics Association’s 2022 summer tour, Decider asked Landgraf if he could provide solid viewership numbers for The Bear. 

“I’m also frustrated, as no doubt you and many of your colleagues here today are, that so much of the data around usage has essentially become private data,” Landgraf said. The executive then clarified that the metric he’s always found most useful when determining the success of a show has been average audience per an episode. Though Landgraf could not share exact figures, he was able to put The Bear’s success into perspective.

“I can tell you that it’s a really large number of people and likely makes The Bear the most watched half-hour show we’ve ever had, and as I said, one of the most watched that Hulu’s had,” Landgraf said. “I’m hoping we will begin to be able to provide more details later because, as you know, FX’s point of view is to be as transparent and as direct and as open as we possibly can. It’s been very frustrating to me that the industry went a different direction, and I’m looking forward to seeing it come back.”

“I can tell you that it’s a really large number of [viewers], and likely makes The Bear the most watched half-hour show we’ve ever had, and one of the most watched that Hulu’s had.”—John Landgraf, on the massive viewership of The Bear Season 1 on Hulu

Without any solid numbers, it’s impossible to tell if The Bear really is the most-watched FX half-hour series to date. But based on how The Bear performed against its streaming peers, the series was undoubtably a success. The Bear is one of a handful of shows that premiered under the (now-defunct) FX on Hulu umbrella. Altogether, 10 shows have premiered under this branding: Devs, Mrs. America, A Teacher, American Horror Stories, Y: The Last Man, The Premise, Under the Banner of Heaven, Pistol, Reservation Dogs, and The Bear. Five of those shows were miniseries; one was canceled (Y: The Last Man); one is still in renewal limbo (The Premise); and three were renewed for additional seasons (American Horror Stories, Reservation Dogs, and The Bear). For the purposes of this argument, we’re going to focus on those three renewed shows as well as the one FX on Hulu miniseries that broke through the noise, A Teacher.

Because we don’t know the actual numbers for these shows, let’s look at the next best thing: Google Trends. It should be noted that A Teacher premiered on November 10, 2020; American Horror Stories premiered on July 15, 2021; Reservation Dogs premiered on August 9, 2021; and The Bear premiered on July 14, 2022. It should also be noted that A Teacher, American Horror Stories, and Reservation Dogs are all recognized by Google Trends as TV shows, whereas The Bear hasn’t entered that echelon yet. Though this graphic limits its results to those pertaining to arts and entertainment, it’s possible that Masha the Bear or other unrelated searches may be mixed into these results:

Even if these numbers contain some queries about actual bears, it’s hard to dispute them. At least when it comes to search, The Bear appears to be FX on Hulu’s biggest premiere to date by a wide margin. But how does the series rank outside of FX on Hulu shows?

The Bear Is Also a Hit on Social And In Viewer Demand

Based on everything we know about The Bear, Christopher Storer’s traumatic kitchen comedy isn’t merely a successful FX show. There’s reason to believe that it’s one of the most successful shows of the summer.

According to Parrot Analytics, mere days after its premiere on Hulu, The Bear saw an 114 percent increase in demand. That data includes consumer research, streaming, downloads, social media, and other forms of engagement.

Additionally, even a month after its premiere, The Bear has remained on Whip Media’s SVOD Ranker list. The week that Disney+ was airing the final episode of Obi-Wan Kenobi, The Bear, which had premiered all of its episodes weeks earlier, still ranked higher than the much-ballyhooed Star Wars series. Reelgood also backs up the theory that The Bear has found its audience. At the time of publication, the series still stands on Reelgood’s list of the top 10 movies and shows currently streaming, ranking among fan favorite Stranger Things, and Better Call Saul’s final season.

Then there are the tweets. If you search for “The Bear” on Twitter, the results simply pour in. A video about how stressful it would be to order at the Original Beef of Chicagoland has over 6,000 likes. A photo collection from the aforementioned Vanity Fair profile has over 18,000 likes. A joking tweet about a man being being overly formal to his wife after watching The Bear has close to 12,000 likes. Hell, even post-Severance Ben Stiller tweeted about how Episode 7 knocked him off his chair. 

These aren’t typical numbers, not even for niche media industry hits. These are the sorts of numbers you would expect from shows like You, Stranger Things, or Big Sky — undisputed, presumably nationwide hits. The Bear hasn’t quite yet reached those peaks yet, but it seems to firmly be a hit in its own right.

…So Why Is The Bear a Hit?

That leaves one question: Why? In this overly crowded media landscape, why did The Bear take off when so many other shows have fallen flat?

Photo: FX
Theory #1) It’s the Perfect Binge Watch

The Bear has an absolutely huge, logistical advantage: Most of the 8 episodes clock in right around the 30 minute mark, making it an easily digestible (pun intended) watch. Of course, that doesn’t refer to the emotional toll that comes with watching Carmy shoot himself in the foot time and time again. That side of things is endlessly stressful. But from a time commitment perspective, The Bear is the perfect show.

So many series today require an investment of a couple of episodes to an entire season before the story “gets good.” During an era when Stranger Things 4’s finale was over two hours long and Marvel has made multi-show and movie epics the norm, The Bear takes a conscious zag. From the show’s first few hectic minutes, you understand the manic, harried tone of this series that constantly jumps between unaddressed familial trauma and borderline toxic passion. The Bear starts at a confident 11, and it stays that way until the very end. That makes it easy to jump into this series and get hooked.

Theory #2) We Have a Soft Spot for Working Class Heroes Right Now

For most of the population, COVID-19 left us with a newfound respect for essential workers. Perhaps that’s why Carmy, Sydney, and Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) have resonated with so many people. They may be exceptional, especially when you’re talking about Carmy and Sydney. But at the end of the day these people are just everyday people. They’re not the rich sociopaths that occupy some of HBO and Netflix’s biggest shows. They’re men and women who have to worry about paying bills, the stress of work, and the horrors of dealing with the public. This brand of hyper-realism can feel deeply comforting.

And The Bear has been widely praised for its honesty. That may be another reason for its success. Eater has called the series “scripted TV’s most authentic portrayal of life inside a failing restaurant.” When SFGate interviewed multiple chefs about this fast-paced thrill ride, chef-owner of Nightbird Kim Alter said, “for the most part, it’s pretty dead on.” TastingTable wrote a similar article, compiling critic reviews and social media posts that have praised The Bear for feeling true to kitchen life, stress and all.

This is all to say that The Bear has married two underserved audiences in one show: working-class people, and those who fetishize this type of work. There have always been fans of stories about everyday people struggling to make ends meet. Just look at the success of Roseanne, The Middle, and Bob’s Burgers. The Bear is just the latest show to perfectly capture this milieu.

Photo: Frank Ockenfels/FX
Theory #3) It’s a Story We Already Know and Love

This is a point that The Ringer’s Allison Herman brought up in her criticism of the series. During a debate with her colleague Charles Holmes, Herman wrote that “the coastal elite yanked back to the heartland to redeem themselves through unglamorous work is a time-honored template that powers countless Hallmark movies.” And she’s right.

That is essentially the story of The Bear. At the highest point in his career, Carmy was an esteemed chef in the most revered restaurant in America. Much of the series revolves around stripping down Carmy’s ego as he realizes that the strategies that worked in his fancy restaurant won’t work in this mom-and-pop shop. The story of the professional learning from everyday people is one we’ve seen a million times before. But there is another layer to Carmy’s story that makes him extra compelling.

Form the beginning, The Bear makes it clear that Carmy never intended to return to Chicago. He only took over Original Beef of Chicagoland due to his brother’s suicide. Globally, that is a story we can all understand. We all had specific plans for our futures at the end of 2019. And for a vast majority of us, those plans were absolutely obliterated by April of 2020. Being forced into a new life that doesn’t suit you and that you don’t quite understand is a position a lot of people have found themselves in, whether that change was due to a death in the family, the loss of a job, an unplanned move, or a million other factors during these precarious times. The point is, a protagonist who has been thrust into a world he never wanted to be in and doesn’t fully understand looks really appealing right about now.

Theory #4) Carmy Is Hot AF

It may be shallow, but it’s true. Carmy is straight-up sexy. Mel Magazine called him the “type of fuckboy every woman knows.” Bon Appetit called him a “sexually competent dirtbag” and likened him to the type of guy who does not own a bedframe. Both of these takes are accurate. There is a type of guy — somehow they’re almost always guys, specifically cishet men —  who is incapable of basic responsibilities, lives on the edge of depressed nihilism, constantly inspires fights with his closest friends, and probably hasn’t washed that shirt in about a week. And yet he is irresistible.

Most people who date men have fallen victim to the charms of the Carmys of the world with their hooded eyes and burning passion. You can fix him! If he loves that risotto so much, imagine how much he could love you! This line of thinking is a scam that will end with you, the lovestruck hopeful, wasting months if not years of your life decoding his one-word texts.

The rise of Carmy thirst posts isn’t merely proof that this type of the man’s sex appeal. Carmy is the only instance of this brand of hot man currently on television. He has given us all a character to point to so that we can say, “That’s the guy I had sex with in the back of his U-Haul.” Absolutely nailing a specific vibe, especially a vibe that is appealing to horny women who make bad choices, will get you a ton of attention, fast. This isn’t to say that The Bear is a success solely because White and Carmy are hot. It’s a phenomenally paced show that always balances the stress of the kitchen with heart. But nailing the sex appeal of brooding, unwashed trash men certainly hasn’t hurt anything.

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