The best scene in the first episode of Feed the Beast, “Pilot Light,” occurs about halfway through. Dion (Jim Sturgess), a troubled chef recently released early from prison, is fantasizing about his dream restaurant, which he and his sommelier friend Tommy (David Schwimmer) had planned to open. The scene begins in the kitchen, shot quickly and with blurred focus. Dion and other cooks yell requests at each other as the gas stove flares. As a server brings the finished dish from the chaos of the kitchen into the fancy dining room, everything slows down and the focus tightens. The camera sweeps over the restaurant, where Tommy pleasantly sells wine to an enraptured table. It’s a perfect visual metaphor for how working in a restaurant feels, and moments and small details like this are what draw me to the series. Some of the other aspects, though, are less appealing.
Let’s back up. Feed the Beast is AMC’s latest primetime drama, an adaptation of the Danish Bankerot series that’s slid in almost unnoticed amidst the fanfare for Preacher. It follows Dion Patras, a volatile chef with a coke addiction, a debt to the mob and an undeniable gift in the kitchen, and Tommy Moran, an out-of-work sommelier drunkenly mourning the death of his wife Rie (Christine Adams) in a hit and run accident, one which traumatized his young son TJ (Elijah Jacob) into muteness. These events have created a rift between Dion and Tommy, who had intended to open their dream restaurant with Tommy’s late wife. But Dion finds a renewed interest in the business as a way to pay his significant debt to the mob, one that enforcer Patrick Wolchik (Michael Gladis), a.k.a. “The Tooth Fairy” is keen to collect on.
There’s a lot of stuff in the mix here, and it’s handled with varying degrees of skill. When the show is moving quick, like Dion’s release from prison—which he spends having sex with his lawyer and dodging out of back doors to avoid the mob—it’s pretty light and fun. And when the show actually discusses the restaurant elements, from lurid descriptions of upcoming menu items to stark walkthroughs of meat markets and butcher shops, it’s engaging and a special kind of gorgeous. But the show also plays a little broad and over the top with its more dramatic elements. Schwimmer’s range is much stronger than we gave him credit for all these years, and he’s doing the best he can to sell these somewhat maudlin lines. But a scene at a grief support group tips into corny, and his fights with Dion are overwrought. Schwimmer is a strong enough performer that the show should lean into “less is more,” and write smaller, more powerful moments. As for Sturgess, he mainly gets by on looks and bad boy charm. These things aren’t bad, and play well with cooking montages and ducking down alleys to dodge vans full of mobsters. But for deeper scenes, like confronting Tommy’s alcoholism, he falls a little flat.
Even one episode in, the show has plenty of other elements in play, as well. John Doman is here as Tommy’s rich, racist father, a businessman who bankrolls their new restaurant. Lorenza Izzo is pleasant enough as Pilar, a naïve restaurant manager with a crush on Tommy whom he meets in his support group. It’s not a subtle show, so I’m predicting either a love triangle with her and the boys or a revealed crush or affair between Dion and Tommy’s late wife. All this is honestly fine material to work with, especially in a light, summer trash TV style. But Feed the Beast is sort of under the impression it has to be the next Breaking Bad or Mad Men, deep, melancholy television that wins awards and gets books written about it.
For me, that’s the wrong approach. I love food. I love restaurant working and management culture, the ins and outs of it, especially in a setting like New York City. I love the mob in fiction, with interesting characters and silly nicknames and personalized torture methods. Just keep giving me these elements, with the eye for cinematography and editing that the pilot displayed. Trim away the melodrama, keep Schwimmer in the spotlight and Sturgess as the deuteragonist who doesn’t carry the drama, and we’re set.
Feed the Beast airs Tuesdays at 10 PM on AMC.