AMC’s latest series Feed the Beast follows two friends looking to pay their debts, rebuild their lives and carry out their dream of running a high-end restaurant in the Bronx, all while evading mob bosses, navigating abusive relationships and staying out of prison. The show has all of the ingredients of a juicy culinary crime drama, but with multiple competing story lines and a weak turn by one of its stars, it’s too soon to tell if they’ll all come together.
Feed the Beast kicks off by introducing us to its two main characters. Dion (Jim Sturgess) is an unkempt, seemingly manic chef who has been spending some time behind bars after setting the restaurant he worked for on fire — don’t go feeling bad for him though, his talents in the kitchen have kept him comfy and more than a few of his guards well fed. His friend Tommy (David Schwimmer) is a sommelier who’s been dealing with the recent death of his wife and his resulting communication problems with his young son T.J. (Elijah Jacob) by turning to the bottle.
Before I even screened the first two episodes of this series, I read an interview show runner Clyde Phillips did with Vanity Fair. In it, he recounts a gift he gave to Schwimmer: a tombstone engraved with the words ‘Ross Geller, 1994 to 2004. Friend.’ It was meant as the final nail in the coffin of the character that’s come to define the actor over a period of decades — even after his celebrated performance in Ryan Murphy’s O.J. Simpson saga The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
Feed the Beast is not going to erase the memory of goofy Ross Geller — his burning torch for Rachel will forever be the stuff sitcom romances are made of — but Schwimmer’s turn as Tommy, the tortured widower struggling to be a father to his traumatized son and move past his own grief is some of the best work he’s ever done — and the main reason to watch this show.
Schwimmer is that rarest of unicorns, an actor who actually understands comedic timing. He’s able to add humor to even the heaviest, most heartbreaking of scenes — a visit to his late wife’s grave, a meeting with his estranged father, the silence between him and his mute son on the ride to school — and he does it without us even realizing. He’s the perfect fit for Phillips, who favors dark humor and sarcastic undertones in most of the dialogue he writes — see Nurse Jackie and Dexter for reference.
But if Schwimmer’s the main course, his scene partner is the side dish we could definitely do without. It’s not that Sturgess isn’t a capable lead — he carried The Way Back, a film that followed a group of Siberian gulag escapees on their 4,000-mile journey to freedom. That movie also boasted names like Ed Harris, Colin Farrell and Saiorse Ronan and it definitely deserves a place in your Netflix queue, but for some reason, in his first starring TV series, Sturgess spends the premiere episodes nursing what I can only describe as the worst Robert De Niro impression I’ve ever seen on screen. And I’ve seen a lot. To be fair, he’s working with a character not even half as developed as Schwimmer’s. It’s like someone saw Bradley Cooper in that disaster of a movie Burnt and thought, “That must be how all chefs really are — unhinged self-centered coke heads who f*ck anything on two legs.”
Before he’s even out of prison, Dion’s snorting a line and screwing his lawyer in a holding cell. He then spends his next 24 hours hitting up his uncle — a man who runs a brothel in an upstairs apartment –for cash and a fake passport to leave the country before getting caught by the mob, inviting them into Tommy’s home, promising the two will start a restaurant to pay his debts and then pressuring his friend to upend his life all for his own selfish gain.
It’s not that a**holes don’t exist in the world but I can’t imagine someone being as big of a douchebag as this guy. His entire makeup is just too unbelievable especially when matched against Schwimmer’s Tommy, a man who’s experienced real dramatic loss in his life, both personally and professionally and who’s been left to provide for his son doing a job he hates while dealing with his abusive father (The Wire’s John Doman). Tommy’s the man who should be giving the world a big middle finger, not Dion and Dion’s “acting out” doesn’t paint him as a genius or a compelling character, it just makes him seem like a tool. The only time Sturgess is bearable is when he’s opposite Schwimmer. Tommy and Dion’s relationship is the core of the series and it’s when they’re in the kitchen that we get our best scenes.
Their first meal after his release from prison is a pasta filled with the few ingredients Dion’s able to forage in Tommy’s kitchen. It’s simple and beautiful — maybe a metaphor for their friendship, before life and their choices screwed everything up. It proves you can make something of nothing, which is what they’re trying to do in launching their restaurant, Thirio (Greek for “beast”), in a sketchy neighborhood in the Bronx.
Thirio is its own character in the series too. In dreamy flashbacks we see Tommy, Dion, and Tommy’s late wife Rie (Christine Adams) working together to give life to the place. Now that Rie’s gone, Tommy finds himself living in the tomb of that dream — almost literally. He’s made a home for his son in the building the restaurant was meant to be housed in, surrounded by fancy Italian coffee machines, Cyprus pillars and expensive stoves.
The few periphery characters in the show also have some compelling side stories. The mob boss obsessively hunting Dion nicknamed The Tooth Fairy (Michael Gladis)– he likes to collect debts while educating his victims on the vestigiality of wisdom teeth — may seem like a bad guy (his unrealized dreams of becoming a dentist force him to wield a pair of pliers a bit too aggressively) but we learn it’s his own father that’s pushed him toward a life of violence. Tommy’s relationship with his son T.J. is also strained. The two are both grieving, but while Tommy chooses to handle his emotions by swirling wine in a glass, T.J. opts for silence.
A bit of bad acting aside, the current pace of the show is its biggest problem. We’re jerked from one scene to the next so often that whiplash becomes a real concern at a certain point. I blame it on all of the extraneous story lines – Dion’s uncle, the detective blackmailing him into ratting out the mob, Tommy’s complicated relationship with his dad, the lawyer Dion may be romantically involved with, Tommy’s flirtation at a grief group. It’s a lot to keep up with and the show spends more time jumping around, trying to hit every character than fleshing out the ones we might really care about.
But everyone knows not to judge a four-course meal by the appetizer so I’m holding out hope that Feed the Beast can live up to its stellar cast and promising story line. Maybe it just needs a bit more time to marinate.
Feed The Beast premieres Sunday, June 5 at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.