Four episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
AMC is obviously playing to its strengths when it comes to the debut of its two new Summer shows: one, the high-profile, highly successful, astronomically weird Preacher, the other – Feed the Beast – as out-of-nowhere and forgotten as a Pop-Tart in a toaster. David Schwimmer’s turn in the mob-underworld-meets-culinary-tablescape series has justified a few headlines but, otherwise, the network has let this one simmer.
Maybe that’s a good thing, because going into Feed the Beast with zero context helps. The show is completely of its time, both to its own success and detriment. It embraces clichés with abandon (there is a brothel subplot that you will not be able to tell apart from every other brothel subplot currently on TV), but our central characters have that post-Breaking Bad AMC murk bursting from every orifice, and it’s all cemented with a tangible grit by Dexter/Nurse Jackie alum Clyde Phillips. In other words, Feed the Beast won’t change the cable drama game, but it’s also far more than yet another half-assed entrée.
Best yet, it’ll make foodies weak at the knees. The series starts when Dion (Jim Sturgess) gets out of jail early on good behavior (and good cooking), and immediately lands back in with the corrupt mob boss who got him there. Turns out Patrick (Michael Gladis), aka the “Tooth Fairy” (go with it) got Dion out for his own purposes: he needs the talented chef slash drug addict to pay up the $600,000 owed to him when Dion set ablaze the family restaurant to collect the insurance money, which didn’t exactly go to plan once he was caught as an employee of the place.
To help, Dion seeks his long-time childhood best friend Tommy (David Schwimmer), a sommelier with a mute son, TJ (an expressive and endearing Elijah Jacob), and a massive hole in his life left by his now dead, also-a-chef wife Rie (Christine Adams). Dion’s plan is twofold: convince Tommy to reignite the plans for Thirio, the restaurant they were planning to open with Rie before her car accident, and keep mum on the entire reason he needs the restaurant to work, a business plan whose failure now encompasses all of their lives once the Tooth Fairy invests in the venture.
The setup is well constructed and intriguingly presented; it’s one of those shows whose execution is so solid and economical you forget how clunky and disproportionate some pilots can be. The dialogue fuels a few tidbits of information, but a lot of visual, nonverbal action fills in the gaps. Which is thankful considering its heavy focus on Dion’s masterwork creations in the kitchen. The camera holds and zooms, edits flying past, the food – a rack of lamb, roasted quail, a bowl of malfatti pasta I almost bumped my hand against a computer screen to grab – ridiculously appetizing. On a show with stakes as high as the carb count on Thirio’s menu, making the food and wine pairings as appetizing as this underlines the drama with a weirdly tantalizing appeal.
It’s just that some of those stakes take time to pan out. Anything surrounding the Tooth Fairy and his gang of thugs comes off as a dumbed-down Kingpin wannabe within the confines of the first three episodes, which are far more concerned with setting up Dion and Tommy’s loving, bickering relationship than what appears to be the show’s big bad. Gladis is fine in the role, but his cool-as-a-cucumber villain is yawn-worthy and all of his visual bad guy cues – a set of pliers to do his dental work, a big black van decked out with a mahogany dining table in the backseat – never inspire even a tablespoon of fear. Thankfully, by the time hour four rolls around, a bloody twist amps up his presence to a level that’s less overt and more creepily string-pulling.
But where his early-on mediocrity flourishes, the main cast shines, and that’s a hard thing to knock on Feed the Beast for. Schwimmer is the bigger name here, and he’s shockingly effective in the grief-stricken role. A scene early on in a grief group, where he meets fellow widow Pilar (Lorenza Izzo) and divulges the “phantom limb” left over by his wife’s accident, packs an agreeable punch for a show that’s barely minutes old when it happens. His ironic job as an alcoholic sommelier never feels hokey or forced, and his relationship with son TJ, who hasn’t spoken since seeing his mom die, is acceptably tragic.
But this is Sturgess’ show. He’s the chaotic, Jesse Pinkman-like force at the center of Tommy’s placid world, and Sturgess has all the bottled-up charm, drifter looks, and rambunctious attitude to anchor a series that bounces back and forth between family dysfunction and hardboiled drama. He’s what makes the show work in spite of its familiar setup and construction (flashbacks are filmed in a cheerily sunny filter to give you an unneeded context of emotion for the rest of the scenes), and he’s an energetic riot in the kitchen. Like any good chef, he works best under stress, especially when an unexpected new hire knocks his status at Thirio down a few pegs, resulting in some humorously creative moments of subterfuge.
Late in episode two, when Dion sees how Tommy is reacting positively to working on the restaurant, giving him purpose, he points it out to his friend. Tommy’s response is that nothing will ever be truly the same without Rei, he’s simply “optimistic adjacent.” That’s a pretty good description of my headspace for Feed the Beast. The show’s solid, the Bronx-appropriate brutality is believable, the characters are endearing, and the food is pornographic. But it’s just not different or special or particularly memorable beyond a few weird-yet-clever living dream sequences through the eyes of Dion’s food-obsessed imagination. Phillips has the correct ingredients for a kick-ass meal, it’s just yet to be determined whether or not they will all come together.
The criminal aspects of Feed the Beast never spurn Breaking Bad-level anxiety, but Schwimmer and Sturgess have energetic chemistry and their bootstrap business venture is oddly fascinating to watch evolve.