On AMC's new drama Feed the Beast, best friends Tommy (David Schwimmer) and Dion (Jim Sturgess) try opening a fancy restaurant in the Bronx so that Tommy can get over the death of his wife in a hit-and-run accident, while Dion can pay off a massive debt he owes to a local mob boss. Along the way, they acquire an inexperienced restaurant manager, Pilar (Lorenza Izzo), who takes the job because she has a crush on Tommy, but who's really there as a device for the show to let Tommy and Dion explain the finer points of the business to the audience. At one point, for instance, she objects to Dion spending so much money on skillets. He responds by offering her a dish made in one of his pans and the same one made in the big box store model Tommy has in his own kitchen; the former is so much better that she instantly caves. In another episode, she tries convincing Tommy – allegedly the best sommelier in New York – that they can get away serving cheap wine that resembles the expensive stuff he wants to buy. He not only demonstrates the superiority of the latter, but warns her that the kind of clientele they hope to attract will instantly know the difference.
Unfortunately, Feed the Beast plays more like a show created by Pilar than either of her bosses, full of familiar, bland ingredients struggling mightily to pass themselves off as something richer and more impressive. And the audience that AMC is hoping to attract will surely know better.
The series (it sneak previews Sunday at 10 after Preacher, then will air Tuesdays at 10 beginning two nights later) was adapted by TV veteran Clyde Phillips (who notably ran the first four seasons of Dexter, and most recently took over Nurse Jackie at the very end) from the Danish show Bankerot. This is AMC's second time remaking a Danish show, after The Killing, which for five minutes seemed like it was going to be the next big thing until it became obvious that there was no there there beyond red herrings, rain, and Joel Kinnaman. What both these shows – and, for that matter, Low Winter Sun, AMC's short-lived, exceedingly mediocre adaptation of a British series – have in common is the way they copy the basic structure and content of great cable dramas past without having the substance or artistry that made the older shows more than anti-hero and mob cliches.
The most frustrating part of Feed the Beast is that it feels like there's a promising show buried underneath all the superficial aping of other series. Schwimmer – between this and The People v. O.J. Simpson, in the midst of an impressive reinvention as a dramatic actor – is excellent, and the material about Tommy and his biracial son TJ (Elijah Jacob) each coping with grief in their own way (TJ hasn't spoken a word since witnessing his mother's death) suggests an interesting hook for a story about two guys trying to cook their way out of catastrophe. And on those occasions when the show gets really nerdy and detail-oriented about the restaurant business (including those scenes where Pilar is there to be mansplained to), it demonstrates a confident, appealing command of what's allegedly its chief subject matter.
But the show is larded up with exhausted crime drama devices: the sociopath wiseguy (Michael Gladis from Mad Men) with a trademark method of inflicting pain (he's known to many as “The Tooth Fairy”), the obsessed cop (Michael Rispoli, aka The Man Who Would Be Tony Soprano) and Tommy's crude, racist father (John Doman from The Wire). Even Dion himself is less a character than a walking, preening, extremely annoying plot device who exists mainly to create problems for Tommy to solve, rather than as a person in his own right. With each mistake Dion made, and each lie he told to his partner that makes their situation that much worse, my hopes for the series sank even deeper than the restaurant's financial prospects.
Now, a show about two damaged friends opening a restaurant without involvement from mobsters, rogue cops, drug dealers, and other shady elements would probably be a harder sell, and also a harder show to generate story for. Restaurant-based series have a sketchy commercial track record: for every Alice or even 2 Broke Girls, there are the likes of Frank's Place, Kitchen Confidential, and even Tremé, where the scenes about the the restaurant somehow seemed even less popular than the scenes about jazz. Even if Phillips were starting from scratch rather than adapting a foreign show, I can understand why he might feel the need to garnish it with threats of murder and mutilation. But the allegedly more commercial parts of Feed the Beast are also by far the worst parts, ultimately so annoying that even the caliber of Schwimmer's work couldn't keep me around. He's like that expensive bottle of wine Tommy invites Pilar to taste, only for some reason being served at an Arby's.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org