‘Feed the Beast’ Serves up Empty Calories

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It’s about time for a meaty hour-long drama about New York City’s restaurant industry set in the gentrifying South Bronx. Unfortunately, Feed the Beast is not that show. Premiering on Sunday, the new AMC series starring David Schwimmer and Jim Sturgess has the opportunity to do something interesting and unique, but it squanders the potential for human drama on gangster clichés.

Adapted from the Danish series Bankerot, Feed the Beast hinges on the relationship between Tommy Moran (Schwimmer) and Dion Patras (Sturgess), childhood best friends from the Bronx who had planned to open an upscale Greek restaurant together along with Tommy’s wife, Rie (Christine Adams). But Dion was arrested and imprisoned for getting “coked up” and burning down the nascent restaurant after Rie was killed in a hit-and-run — which Tommy and Rie’s young son, T.J. (Elijah Jacob), witnessed.

Since then, Tommy, a sommelier, has been selling wine (and drinking too much of it), and T.J. hasn’t spoken a word. Dion’s return from prison shakes Tommy out of his grief-induced stupor, and after some resistance, Dion convinces Tommy to give their dream of opening a fine-dining restaurant in the Bronx one more shot.

Sounds like an interesting show, right? But it’s not really what Feed the Beast wants to be. Like HBO’s Vinyl, the pilot episode of Feed the Beast immediately establishes that this is a story about organized crime. Dion may be out of prison, but he’s several hundred thousand dollars in debt to Patrick Woijchik (Mad Men’s Michael Gladis), a local mob boss known as the Tooth Fairy because of his fondness for pulling out his victims’ teeth. Dion also convinces Tommy to beg money from his estranged father, Aidan (John Doman, who also plays a ball-busting father on The Affair), who owns a scaffolding business ironically called Moran & Sons.

The writers stuff the mob plot into what could have easily been a show about a grieving father and son reenergized by the effort to open a restaurant in an unlikely place. The first four episodes devote way too much screen time to Woijchik and his goons, but the show doesn’t appear to have anything new or interesting to say about organized crime or corruption. Instead, it relies on familiar clichés, like the scary mob boss with an eerily calm exterior.

Feed the Beast sets up a contrast between the food and wine Dion and Tommy plan to serve and the location in which they plan to serve them. But, again like Vinyl, the griminess of New York City is ironically appealing here: Tommy and T.J. live in an old piano factory in Morrisania, in the South Bronx, which they’re renovating for the restaurant. It’s dusty and cluttered, and you better believe it has a rooftop that faces the Bronx’s famed elevated subway tracks. But it’s also huge and filled with golden shafts of sunlight that spotlight gorgeous exposed-brick walls.

The so-grimy-it’s-chic aesthetic goes right to the marrow of the show. Feed the Beast wants to have its sous-vide quail with roasted grapes and a cracked-wheat salad and eat it, too — it wants food-porn-y shots of scallops sautéing in a pan, but it also wants shots of teeth being violently yanked from a dude’s mouth with needle-nosed pliers. The problem is, neither of those notes ring true. The Tooth Fairy is supposed to be menacing, but comes off more like parody; he rides through the Bronx in the back of a custom-designed van, waiting with a placid expression for his thugs to shove some poor shmuck like Dion through its doors. Tommy’s father is so mean it’s almost funny — in the second episode, he points a gun at his son when the two get into a scuffle, growling, “I’d blow your brains out, but this is a $30,000 Persian rug.” I get that these two have their differences, but even Tywin Lannister showed more restraint than that. And for a show about gentrification in the Bronx, Feed the Beast is surprisingly white: The only significant black character so far is T.J.’s mother, whom we glimpse briefly in flashbacks.

When Feed the Beast turns its attention to food and wine, it’s not much better. Those repeated close-up shots of a gas range erupting in blue flames are pretty, but there are only so many times you can watch David Schwimmer take a bite of food and pronounce it “astonishing” before you get the gist — Dion’s a good cook. (Just where this rough-and-tumble coke addict from the Bronx learned to cook for an upscale fine-dining establishment is a mystery so far.) Props to Schwimmer for memorizing all that wine jargon, but even he can’t save a line like “now we nose the wine.” Sniffing a glass of red with the restaurant’s new manager, he declares, “Sun-drenched, overripe wild berries; dried savory Herbes de Provence; hints of cedar from neutral old oak; and an old-world rusticity. Right? Ok, now we take a good sip.”

My god, the dialogue. Feed the Beast features some of the lamest I’ve heard on a new show in a while. “How are you and the bottle getting along these days?” Dion asks Tommy when the two reunite. “Really well, actually,” Tommy replies. “We’re in love.” When Tommy leaves his wine-selling job, his boss tells him, “Once you quit, you can’t unquit. You got that?” “I want to have rough sex with these pans!” Dion exclaims when he’s finally able to afford new kitchen equipment.

Feed the Beast tosses a few women into this stew of clichés, including a lawyer pal of Dion’s (Erin Cummings), who’s shown having sex with Dion on a visit to the prison within the first five minutes of the first episode, while simultaneously outlining his parole rules. The most significant female character is Pilar (Lorenza Izzo), who meets Tommy at a grief group early in the first episode in a scene that immediately establishes her as the shiny-haired love interest. She later offers to take over the restaurant’s managing duties, although she already works in the café her sister runs in Harlem. She’s not so much a character as a solution to Tommy’s emotional and logistical problems, always popping in to help solve a crisis.

The women on the show seem strangely eager to help Tommy and Dion work through their shit. The lawyer feigns exasperation when Tommy shows up to ask for favors, but it’s clear he’s literally charmed the pants off her. T.J.’s teacher warns Tommy early on that his son will need more support at home; later, she sits down with Tommy to discuss the fact that T.J. is being bullied. When Tommy says he knows “what bruises look like on a kid who’s getting beat up,” she implores, “Did something happen when you were growing up?” We don’t find out much about her, either, but we are treated to a nice view of her ass as Dion checks her out when he picks T.J. up from school.

Feed the Beast has the ambitions of a gritty, no-holds-barred prestige cable drama, but it’s written more like a network hour-long. The writers seem to be conflating violence with depth, swapping out character development for petty crime. It’s a problem that’s not unique to this drama series: Vinyl is about music, but also murder; The Affair is about infidelity, but also murder; Scandal is about Washington politics, but also murder. Unlike British dramas — which often feature regular people in almost aggressively mundane circumstances — it’s rare to find a good American drama with zero violent crime or supernatural elements, and that’s a shame.

A series can be sensational and still feel true to life. Some pretty crazy shit went down on Mad Men, not because Don Draper was beholden to an eccentric mobster but simply because life can be weird. Sure, it can also be violent — in the pilot episode of Friday Night Lights, a small Texas town is torn apart when the high school’s star quarterback is injured during a football game and paralyzed from the waist down. But in its second season, the show made a notorious misstep when it had two high-school kids accidentally murder a man who tried to attack them. That season is considered FNL’s worst, because it turned a series that had been almost painfully realistic into something melodramatic that screamed, “Look at me! I’m a TV show!” In the world of the show, it made sense for a football star to be crippled by his injuries; it didn’t make sense for two teenagers to kill a stranger and then dump his body, and audiences could smell the difference.

Would it have been so hard to get viewers interested in Feed the Beast without leaning heavily on menacing mob figures? It shouldn’t be; on the internet, North Americans have proven our rabid interest in all things food-related. It should be a no-brainer to transplant the insane popularity of recipe videos and food stories to TV. With its “fine dining in the Bronx” shtick, the series pays lip service to navigating uncharted territory without following through on that notion. Feed the Beast wants to serve up a unique gourmet experience, but it tastes like the same old chicken to me.

Feed the Beast premieres Sunday, June 5 at 10 p.m. on AMC.