Kitchens have stoves, stoves that produce heat, often from a gas flame. Inasmuch as someone is unable to abide the heat in said kitchen (due to the aforementioned stoves), that person should promptly remove themselves. That’s the main takeaway from AMC’s new drama, Feed The Beast, which gussies up clichés and dramatic tropes in the same way its characters “elevate” their fine-dining cuisine. Each episode begins with an extreme close-up of a flame igniting—sometimes in kitchen settings, most times not—before delving back into its tale of fledgling restaurateurs, a sustained metaphor that becomes exhausting after its first use. It’s beautiful to look at, but underneath the presentation, there’s just bland, lukewarm chicken breast.
Beast stars Jim Sturgess and David Schwimmer in a classic television bromance between Dion (Sturgess), a passionate hothead, and Tommy (Schwimmer), the pragmatic number cruncher who serves as Dion’s port in any storm. Dion, a cocky culinary renegade, is released from prison after serving time for torching his former restaurant. He immediately reconnects with Tommy, an elite sommelier whose professional oenophilia has turned into a raging addiction since the death of his wife in a hit-and-run. Tommy’s having a hard enough time holding his life together, between his middling performance as a wine salesman and his parenting challenges with a son who has gone mute since witnessing his mother’s death. Dion turns up at exactly the wrong time, or so it seems, but with his release comes the renewal of their dream of opening a restaurant together.
To its credit, Beast isn’t dragged down by the same inherent limitations that have held back scripted culinary shows like Kitchen Confidential or Feed Me, Mary-Louise Parker’s busted NBC pilot. Television shows with plots that hinge on the success or failure of a new business tend to lack real narrative stakes. If the business fails, there would be no television show, so there’s never a fear of the protagonists being denied what they want most. Starting a business is harrowing and circuitous, but obstacles are only interesting if they appear to genuinely jeopardize the outcome. While Beast runs these best buddies through the obvious scrappy start-up hurdles, it never tries to pretend that not opening the restaurant is a potential outcome. The threats facing Dion and Tommy are much broader and more colorful, but they take the show in tonal directions that compromise its integrity.
Unbeknownst to Tommy, Dion has to jump into the restaurant business as quickly as possible in order to square a debt with Patrick Woichik (a perfectly cast Michael Gladis), the son of a jailed mob boss who is operating the family business in his father’s stead. Patrick is a remorseless enforcer straight out of a Coen brothers movie, with eccentricities that belie how dangerous he is. Much of Beast—especially Tommy’s arc—is emotionally heavy and contemplative, a middle-age slice of life not unlike the late, great Men Of A Certain Age. Dion’s brash, impish energy balances the narrative, but he’s also the vessel for the show’s mob elements, which take Beast too far into USA’s quirky crime wheelhouse. Gladis’ performance is fun even when the material lets him down, but his scenes also feel like they’ve been spliced in from a different show. Not necessarily a worse show, but one that’s sharply different from the one Beast usually is.
The pieces start to fit together as the series progresses, particularly as the mob subplot ensnares Pilar (Lorenza Izzo), a woman who meets Tommy in a grief group and charms her way into a job as the new restaurant’s manager. But even when Beast finds its rhythm, it never quite feels like there’s forward momentum. The performances aren’t to blame, save for Sturgess’ dodgy Hell’s Kitchen accent. The fault lies with the characters. Tommy is sympathetic and relatable, especially in the hands of Schwimmer, who is having an interesting second act as a professional sad sack. But the character veers too close to Zach Braff treacle, complete with his tragically dead loved one and an inability to truly connect with his son. Meanwhile, Dion the firecracker is a one-noted bad-boy chef. Beast doesn’t pretend their restaurant will fail, but the audience has to want to see it succeed, and it’s hard to root for these two as they discuss which of Tommy’s wines will enhance the flavor of Dion’s orange gremolata.
Beast comes with some interesting side dishes, including the relationship between Aidan (John Doman), Tommy’s father, and T.J. (Elijah Jacob), Tommy’s biracial son. Aidan is Archie Bunker in a wheelchair, spouting epithets, slurs, and verbal abuse as only a bastard-father caricature can do. Tommy would sooner have nothing to do with Aidan but has to allow his father back into his (and T.J.’s) life in order to get a loan to open his and Dion’s new Mediterranean restaurant in the Bronx. There’s initially something manipulative in the relationship between Aidan and T.J., given the strong implication that Aidan didn’t approve of Tommy marrying outside his race. But Doman and Jacob have some compelling scenes that feel ported from a more satisfying family drama, another example of the show’s inability to balance its tones.
Mostly, Beast is just a rare miss for Clyde Phillips, who developed it from the Danish series Bankerot. Phillips helmed Dexter during the seasons most responsible for creating the reputation the later seasons destroyed, and he also led Nurse Jackie through a brief creative resurgence. Between those two shows, he’s proven his knack for writing characters who dance on the razor’s edge. It’s not difficult to see why Phillips would be drawn to a story like this, but the Danish original is probably far more charming. When you hear people wax poetic about how the Bronx will be the epicenter of a forthcoming culinary revolution, the only reasonable response is to get up and leave the room. That’s as much the case when the people are talking from inside the television.