Like many people this summer, I recently powered through the first season of The Bear, a gritty and intense FX dramedy currently streaming on Hulu about a family restaurant in Chicago that’s taken over by troubled hotshot chef Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) after his older brother Michael (Jon Bernthal) takes his own life.
A surprise breakout hit, The Bear has been rightfully lauded for its many attributes — the excellent ensemble cast, the insightful and emotionally deft writing, the authentic depiction of working-class Chicago, and the way the filmmaking creates unbearable (no pun intended) tension inside the fraught kitchen workplace. But what initially drew me to the show was the soundtrack, which struck me as refreshing and even subversive for being resolutely … unhip.
If you watch enough prestige TV — and you’re the sort of person who pays attention to the music playing in the background — you no doubt understand what these shows are supposed to sound like. They almost always cater to the sensibilities of the elite upper-class viewers who are drawn to these programs. The song mix is usually the same: Some record-crate soul from the ’60s, an obscure country or soft rock tune from the ’70s, maybe a dash of Krautrock or ’80s indie, perhaps an “ironic” nod to an overplayed radio hit, and then a round-up of “New Music” favorites beamed in from a Spotify algorithm.
This is all great music! But these soundtracks often treat songs like signifiers of “quality.” They are so aggressively tasteful and curator-approved that they can feel a little anonymous and even oppressive, like you’re watching the televisual equivalent of a blandly fashionable downtown boutique.
But The Bear moves to a radically different rhythm. The bulk of the soundtrack is made up of songs from the ’80s and ’90s that patrons of the show’s fictional eatery The Original Beef Of Chicagoland might like: Pearl Jam, John Cougar Mellencamp, Counting Crows, Genesis, Radiohead. If that’s not dad rock enough for you, there are also three Wilco songs. While some snobs might wince at such a normie playlist, the music enhances the everyman vibe of The Bear, while also feeling true to the characters and the milieu. So many TV shows and movies bungle their soundtracks by turning the protagonists into inauthentic music experts whose listening habits don’t line up with real life. Whereas in The Bear, when Carmy’s lunkhead cousin Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) retreats to his car during a tough day at the restaurant, it makes perfect sense that he would have a live acoustic version of Counting Crows’ “Have You Seen Me Lately?” playing on the stereo. (It’s also, to be clear, an awesome song.)
The men responsible for the soundtrack are two of the main creative minds behind The Bear: Christopher Storer, the show’s creator/co-showrunner/executive producer/writer/director, and executive producer Josh Senior. “We became the music supervisors out of just desperation,” Storer explains. “We were like, ‘Let’s save some money and just do it ourselves.'”
But it’s obvious that this decision goes well beyond just navigating around a tight budget. Storer and Senior have real passion for the musical aspect of The Bear. When I reached out with questions about a dozen or so tracks that appeared in the eight-episode season, they were giddy at the prospect of talking about the many personal favorites that ended up in the show. At one point, I asked if they deliberately went against the grain in terms of not picking a conventionally “cool” soundtrack for this kind of buzzy prestige show.
“A hundred percent,” Senior concurred. “More often than not that stuff takes me out. There was a period of time where it was super cool to hear orchestral covers of pop songs. What a novelty. And it worked really well. And I think there are music supervisors who are really good at that. But for us, music is part of the world of the show, and it almost would feel disingenuous to be dropping songs that we couldn’t relate to or that didn’t feel like they lived in this world, and only because they were popular for a different reason.”
Here is a playlist of songs from the first season of The Bear, with Storer and Senior’s commentary about why they were selected.
Wilco, “Via Chicago” (Episode 1)
Christopher Storer (Creator/Co-Showrunner/Executive Producer/Writer/Director): Wilco is one of my favorite bands on the planet. And, as Josh will attest, I put them in every rough cut that we ever make of anything. Josh and I put this song in as a temp, and then they were like, “That actually works.” The vibe is great. And leading off what is an eight-episode freight train, we were like, “Man, it’s kind of cool to put Wilco in that first emotional moment of the show.”
Josh Senior (Executive Producer): We used music as a shorthand to explain the vibe of show. Chris started it off with a playlist of songs that felt like what the show should feel like. And that was how we introduced the show to all of our collaborators. There might have been 50 or 60 songs that Chris sent out to everybody and was like, “This is what the show sounds like.”
When it comes to Wilco specifically, we weren’t trying to say anything other than that we liked that band and that song. A lot of the music that we get excited about putting in things is, I think, stuff that people wouldn’t consider cutting edge or cool. I’m not saying that the show isn’t cutting edge or cool, or that Wilco isn’t. But for us, it wasn’t serving that purpose.
A common assumption I’ve seen in reviews of The Bear is that you put three Wilco songs on the soundtrack because the show is set in Chicago, and Wilco is a defining Chicago band. Is that true?
CS: No. If it was filmed in L.A., it would still have Wilco songs. Honestly, they have always been such a special band to me. I think Susie Tweedy is a legend, and so is Jeff.
The Flowerpot Men, “Beat City” (Episode 6)
This song does seem like a Chicago Easter egg, given that’s an obscure track associated with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, right?
CS: Oh yeah. Richie is a character really dealing with what life is like without not only his boss, but his best friend. And you multiply that by the fact that there is a smaller version of his best friend, Carmy, fighting with him all day long. You see that Richie’s this guy that’s facing what the world is like 10 years too late, after he is been cooped up in this restaurant. We wanted some of the music in these moments with Richie to feel like they were a little bit stuck in time. And we kept thinking, “Richie probably thinks about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off a lot.” He would totally have this song on a playlist.
By the way, when you hear the song independent from Ferris Bueller, it’s incredible. The Ferris Bueller soundtrack is fucking unbelievable.
Refused, “New Noise” (Episodes 1 and 8)
CS: The Shape Of Punk To Come is one of my favorite albums of all time. I remember hearing it for the first time in high school and being like, “This is the coolest thing I have ever fucking heard.” Nothing feels like that intro to “New Noise,” just that moment of, “Oh man, something’s coming. It’s building to something.” In the show, we used it as a cue for “things are about to hit the fan.” There was also something about holding off the drop of that song. I know people were like, “Oh man, you didn’t get to the drop of ‘New Noise!'” But that intro is so specific to how it feels when your heart rate starts going in any job when the pressure gets turned up. And I think holding off from going to the scream feels like being in a restaurant, where the pressure is just this slow escalation.
Pearl Jam, “Animal” (Episode 1)
CS: Pearl Jam is another of my favorite bands, but it’s also a song I heard in a lot of kitchens. It really has that feeling of anarchy looming. And it just felt alive, for lack of a better word.
We were making a statement that this is a loud show, and you are either in or out. I think it’s very much not your thing, or it is very much your thing. I don’t think there is too much of a middle ground. Ending the first episode with “Animal” added this punctuation mark.
JS: Our original pilot was literally wall-to-wall music.
CS: I give FX a lot of credit. They were like, “We dig what you are doing with the music.” But there were a couple episodes where they were like, “Guys, three less songs.” They were literally like, “Relax, dude. This show is going to give someone an actual heart attack.”
JS: By putting more music in earlier in the editing process, it was almost like the music was the bumpers for the editing itself. There is this fight right after the health inspector comes [in Episode 2], where they are deciding who’s going to take the “C” that they have been awarded. And that was always scored in every cut, almost up until the last one. By pulling the music out, you actually got to hear so much more nonverbal communication between all the other characters, and it added this great layer. But it’s cut to the beat of a song that we originally used.
CS: That was the scene where a lot of people, when we were showing our friends rough cuts, they were like, “I’m going to throw myself out a window.”
Counting Crows, “Have You Seen Me Lately?” (Episode 2)
Not only did you use the studio version of this song from 1996’s Recovering The Satellites, but you also used the live version released on the 1998’s Across A Wire: Live In New York City. What was the thinking there?
CS: When we were writing the script and developing it, we knew because of how we had to shoot the show and how many episodes there were, we weren’t going to be outside of the restaurant too much. So, when we go in Richie’s car, we were like, “What’s Richie’s life like at this moment?” He’s in a weird phase. And we were like, he would actually be listening to the live On A Wire version of “Have You Seen Me Lately?” That CD has been in his car for 20 years and it’s his favorite. And then at the end of the episode, when you see that it’s actually Carmy’s fuck up that put this whole thing into motion, we were like, “Well, now we just have to use the louder version of the song.”
JS: It felt like an opportunity to show Richie being vulnerable, and at the same time have the same song mean something totally different for Carmy. Because, remember, we were like, “Maybe we’ll just use one version.” And then Chris, right at the 11th hour, made the right call, which was, “No, there needs to be two versions of this that speaks to both characters.”
CS: A lot of people haven’t necessarily noticed, but the people that have, it’s very funny to be like, “You guys had two versions of ‘Have You Seen Me Lately?’ in one episode?!”
Van Morrison, “Saint Dominic’s Preview” [It’s Too Late To Stop Now version] (Episode 2)
JS: I remember you and I were talking about how Van Morrison makes people happy. It’s happy music. He’s this “cool dad music” guy, that everyone’s dad has played.
CS: We were like, “Dude, it’s that weird time, 4:45, before the dinner rush really kicks in and things are kind of chill. And it’s the first time the kitchen’s semi-quiet.” And we were like, “Someone’s probably playing a Van Morrison live album.”
JS: We did the music for the show on Saturdays. We would shoot during the week and edit. And then on Saturdays, Chris and I would text each other songs that we would then play over cuts that didn’t have music, or had different music in it. And we got on this Van Morrison kick. At first, it was “Brown-Eyed Girl” and more well-known cuts. And then Chris found a few live songs, and what was so cool about them was the applause at the end and also hearing the crowd inside of the restaurant. It felt like the live performance of that song was the right bridge to get you through the three big emotional beats that happened in that episode.
John Cougar Mellencamp, “Check It Out” (Episode 4)
JS: That was something that Chris knew beforehand. It was like a declaration — “It’s ‘Check It Out,’ I don’t need to hear anything else.”
CS: This is hyper-specific, but growing up in Chicago in the mornings before school, I remember you would hear the local Fox station with the traffic report, and for whatever reason the bridge of “Check It Out” was always played over the traffic report. And I was like, “Why is this John Cougar Mellencamp song on this?”
There was really something about this team coming together as a family for the first time, and all feeling exhausted for different reasons, but also feeling like they got to know each other a little bit better in this very strange turn of events. And something about it just felt right when we put it on — they’re eating ice cream and cake and listening to John Mellencamp.
Genesis, “In Too Deep” (Episode 3)
Clearly, there is a deep strain of somewhat unfashionable 1980s mainstream rock on this show. Why did that feel appropriate?
CS: We say very clearly that it’s set in 2022, but there is also something timeless about this place. It’s based on my friend’s restaurant in Chicago, which is located in this beautiful part of River North but it’s this relic of a different time. There’s a sign in there that says, “Even though it’s 2022 out there, it’s 1998 in here.”
When we started playing “In Too Deep” we were like, “This is exactly what this vibe feels like right now: It’s two o’clock at work, you’re tired, ‘In Too Deep’ is playing.” And I love Genesis, by the way. But that was one song that I always associate with “I’m tired.”
John Mayer, “Last Train Home” (Episode 6)
This song is from Mayer’s 2021 album Sob Rock, but it sounds like it came out the same year as “In Too Deep.”
CS: I thought that album was, honestly, fucking incredible. I feel like it flew under the radar.
Richie is going through this personal realization of realizing that he’s 10 years behind everyone and wants to quit this thing, and doesn’t even know how much the city has changed without him. And there was really something about the team gelling together, and just hearing that kind of ’80s-inspired rock, but a new version of it, that felt right.
R.E.M., “Oh My Heart” (Episode 3)
CS: I worship R.E.M., dude. They’re another band that always finds a way into everything we’re working on.
What’s interesting is that you went with a song from R.E.M.’s final album, 2011’s Collapse Into Now, which is not the obvious choice. You went deep.
CS: In the back of my mind, I was kind of saying goodbye to my favorite band. This sounds so trivial. But I remember that song was always such a specific thing of R.E.M. to me. That last album sort of just slipped away even though there are some masterworks there. It’s almost a mirror of Radiohead’s “Let Down” for me, which is this song that’s impossibly sad, but there’s something really hopeful about it. It reminded me a lot of their work on Green.
I thought Michael probably listened to R.E.M. Life’s Rich Pageant is probably one of those CDs rolling and falling around in the restaurant somewhere.
Was there also a part of you that thought, “Not enough people appreciate Collapse Into Now, I’m going to expose them to this R.E.M. song and change that”?
CS: Oh dude, of course.
Wilco “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” [Kicking Television version] (Episode 7)
Here’s another example of how you used a live track instead of a studio version. How do you think that enhances the vibe of the show? In this particular instance, “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” feels like a bomb that’s about to go off in the middle of the tensest episode of the season.
CS: You don’t know what direction that song is going in, man. And you feel Nels Cline’s guitar, you feel all that crazy shit. And you are like, “This is an adventure.”
JS: There’s something about that version that feels like somebody might go off into a solo at any moment. It feels kind of dangerous. And there was something about the way that was sort of foreshadowing, but not giving away what was going to happen. And the fact that it’s also such a long song, I think it fits what we were trying to do with the episode.
CS: Did we use all 11 minutes of it?
JS: We play the entire song.
CS: It’s punishing, dude. It’s like this demon fucking live track. It feels wild, dude. We were like, “Let’s be really on the nose and put this song that everyone loves over this thing, because in five minutes it’s going to suck.”
Radiohead, “Let Down” (Episode 8)
JS: It’s a song that on its face is really about disappointment. And then it has this bridge that feels immensely hopeful. There are so many lyrics about bugs in it, and just very interesting sort of abstract visions of families falling apart or coming back together.
We always wanted to end it with a family meal. We always wanted to end it with these people together. But we also wanted to give that final beat. When you see Jeremy looking at Johnny, you’re like, “This is a great place to stop this train.” And playing the bridge of “Let Down” over the credits felt like it gave people a chance to just relax for a second. It felt hopeful after a period of disappointment.
There’s also the fact that the bridge of “Let Down” is an instant tearjerker.
CS: It’s a release, dude. I lost a friend who was close to me, not too long before we started developing this thing. And it’s weird how grief sort of attacks us and how we choose to attack it. And I think my answer was to sort of bury my head in work and never think about it. But eventually I did, and I had this sort of release in the same way. And I was like, how do we mimic that emotional real estate?