Do you like food? Do you like movies? Do you like movies about food? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might enjoy Eater at the Movies, a column by Joshua David Stein.
When it comes to popular culture, American existential dread manifests in discrete but interwoven ways. On one hand, there's Beyoncé's Formation. On the other, there's USA Freedom Kids' "Cowardice, Are You Serious?" Both are brilliant, though with differing levels of dramatic irony. Elsewhere, there have been a handful of movies and shows about people being stuck in underground bunkers outside of which the world may or may not have ended (10 Cloverfield Lane; Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt; Room). And then there's the dark menacing world of AMC, which went from airing Beach Blanket Bingo and Ski Party to becoming the channel best embodying America's weltschmerz-ian weltanschauung. Between Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, Better Call Saul and now, Feed the Beast, the channel that used to specialize in black-and-white has now gone simply black.
"‘Feed the Beast’ is a relentlessly gritty tale whose précis reads like grade-school Philip K. Dick."
Feed the Beast, which premiered last Sunday (new episodes air Tuesday evenings), is a relentlessly gritty tale by Dexter showrunner Clyde Phillips whose précis reads like grade-school Philip K. Dick. Ross from Friends (or as he is more rarely called, David Schwimmer) plays Tommy Moran, a sad-eyed sommelier whose wife, Rie, was killed in a hit-and-run accident in 2015. He lives with his silent pre-teen son, TJ, in a large industrial space in the Bronx he plans, or planned, to turn into a restaurant.
But he's sad, understandably, so he turns to the bottle and succumbs to inertia, abandoning plans for a new restaurant. The domed espresso machine in the kitchen lies largely fallow. Like Ozymandias' broken trunk, it is a symbol of Moran's failed ambitions. Enter Dion Patras, played in a manic scuzzy way by the English actor Jim Sturgess, thus completing the British invasion of male leads on television. Dion is Tommy Moran's good-for-nothing best friend. We first meet Dion cooking for his guards at the Whitestone Correctional Facility, where he was, until recently, serving time for burning down the restaurant for which he was the chef, Tommy the somm, and Rie, I think, the chef de cuisine. Dion commits this crime in a coke-induced arson orgy because... that's what happens when you do drugs? Kids, don't do drugs.
Dion is mixed up with some bad sorts, namely Patrick Woijchik (Michael Gladis) a Polish mobster ripped straight from the set of Marathon Man. He calls himself "the Tooth Fairy" and carries around a pair of pliers with which he extracts the teeth of debtors. Through some sort of silly contrivance, the threat of an unsanctioned dental extraction scares Dion into starting a restaurant, Thirio, in the Bronx. This is, I suppose, the beast one is meant to feed. "Thirio," it turns out, is Greek slang for "Beast." This is the most subtle thing about the show.
"There might as well be a news crawler: ‘Kitchen Confidential’ meets ‘The Sopranos.’"
In the first four episodes available for critics' screenings, these narrative pieces are wheeled into place like siegeworks. They are antiquated, sturdy, and weighty AF. Thrilling they aren't. It's rare that one can so easily infer the pitch that was delivered, on the pool deck at the Soho House or the pitch deck in Studio City, that got the studio to green-light a project. But in this case, there might as well be a news crawler: "Kitchen Confidential meets The Sopranos."
And that might have worked. I mean, someone signed off on the idea, both here and in Denmark, where the original series, Bankerot, was based. But the first inkling that the series is for shit comes just seconds into the episode. TJ, sweet kid, is making his father Tony, deadbeat, what looks like a cappuccino to remind him, gently, that he has overslept on a school day. But here's where things go sideways. I know he's just a kid, but presumably both of his parents were in the food service industry. Surely one of them would have told him that if he uses an $18,000 Elektra Belle Epoque espresso machine, as he does, to steam milk for one drink, he'll not only be wasting most of that milk but there's no way he'll achieve the microfoam one needs for latte art. He also doesn't wipe down the steaming nozzle, which is like Barista 101, and leaves the milk sitting in its aluminum vessel.
Nitpicking? I suppose. But this isn't like this isn't a show about restaurants. It is literally a show about a restaurant. And within the first minute, there's just some shit that would never happen in a good restaurant.
Perhaps I am being ungenerous. Perhaps the makers of Feed the Beast know this is crap coffee construction and that is part of the story. When, upon sipping it alone, Tommy mutters, "Oh, that's good," we are meant to read that as proof that he is a kind and loving father. But that would presuppose a level of skill and nuance that is otherwise entirely absent from the production.
At any rate, the most damning moment of the series — and the one most indicative of the general ineptitude of the entire affair, comes about 17 minutes in. This is Dion's moment to shine as a chef, to make amends for burning down his friend's restaurant. So, despite being a Greek chef and wanting to open a Greek restaurant, he makes TJ and Tommy pasta. What kind? Well, from the looks of the slavering montage, pappardelle. He forms a crater in a mound of pasta and adds two eggs. Legit. He rolls the dough out with a wine bottle and cuts it into strips. Well, clearly these noodles are way too thick for pappardelle but okay, maybe it's a regional variation.
After a lot of cooking — which for Dion, means sprinkling things from very high up with his hand and finishing this sprinkling action with an unnecessary masturbatory upsy-downsy motion — he serves the dish. Actually, he forces Tommy to present the dish in a way too subtly mediocre to chronicle: "House-made malfatti with vine-ripened Roma tomatoes, parmesan, and basil." See the screengrab for what he served.
This is not malfatti. Not even a little bit. It's not like it's gnocchi, which kinda looks like malfatti. Or gnudi, which also kind of looks like malfatti. This is pappardelle. Clearly. And this is why Feed the Beast fails.
Imagine, for a moment, this wasn't a television show, but a dinner. If a chef saw a cook make an error this glaring — this absolutely preventable, careless, and inept — you can bet there would be yelling on the line. Who let this get through? Did anyone give a shit enough to have Schwimmer change his line? There are many many people involved in this show, but apparently none that really care enough to make it watchable.
"If they can’t get a bowl of pasta right, what else will ‘Feed the Beast’ miss? I’m guessing a lot."
It might seem petty to dismiss an ambitious show on a few simple oversights. But the malfatti and microfoam are the brown M&M's of the production. Halfway down the fortieth page of Van Halen's concert rider for the 1982 world tour, there's famously an all-caps and underlined parenthetical stipulating there could be absolutely no brown M&M's. David Lee Roth got slammed for diva demands but, as he described in 2012, the detail was kept there as a test to see if the promoter had read the thing.
His reasoning — if you can't trust them with the small stuff, you can't trust them with the large stuff — works here, as well. There's a lot of heavy shit happening in Feed the Beast: a child suffering the loss of his mother; a husband suffering the loss of his wife; heartbreak; violence; trying not to think of Ross every time you see Schwimmer. At their best, AMC shows become a second family member: Think of Walt's transformation or Jimmy McGill's; if those don't tear up your insides, you're a monster. But those shows earned the right to manipulate. Racked by laziness and riven with error, Feed the Beast hasn't. If they can't get a bowl of pasta right, what else will Feed the Beast miss? I'm guessing a lot, but I won't be around to find out. Even though it's still the first course, it's time for the check.
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
Feed the Beast airs on AMC at 9 p.m., Tuesdays.