How do we recover from tragedy? How we rebound from catastrophic mistakes? How do we start over after life goes bad like a dish of overcooked sea scallop brochettes served with flat wine? Those questions could drive a quality television series, and the latter in particular fuels AMC’s Feed The Beast, the story of fractured, odd couple friends trying to rebuild their broken lives together by rebooting the crashed dream of starting a fancy Greek restaurant. It’s a show that runs slightly contra to many of the formulations that, you know, “feed the beast” of Peak TV. It’s not technically genre, it’s not hopelessly pessimistic or wildly irreverent, it’s not abundant with gonzo, gruesome violence. Yay. Unfortunately, everything fresh is smothered by stale flavors and peculiar cooking, making for disappointing gumbo.
Feed The Beast is one of a few shows coming your way notable for being offbeat to either their networks or their genre (if they belong to one). Welcome to Summer TV, a time for misfit toys. Last year saw an unusual number of winners: Lifetime’s UnReal, USA’s Mr. Robot, CBS’ Zoo, NBC’s The Carmichael Show. Outcast, an exorcist drama that’s more psychological terror than gross-out horror, premiered last Friday on Cinemax. BrainDead, premiering June 13 on CBS, is a CBS zombie-themed political satire from Robert and Michelle King, creators of The Good Wife. Another CBS offering, arriving June 22, strikes me as more of an ABC kind of thing: American Gothic, a murder mystery family soap. Feed The Beast is an American take on a Danish TV series entitled Bankerot developed by Clyde Phillips, the longtime showrunner of Dexter. It owes some of its existence to the food pop moment, mostly expressed in the form of reality show TV. Over the last two years, the phenomenon yielded two indie flicks, Jon Favreau’s Chef and Bradley Cooper’s Burnt, stories about fallen dudes trying to cook up redemption. But watching Feed The Beast, I was also reminded of recent foreign TV remakes like Fox’s Rake or NBC’s The Slap, shows that tried and failed to entertain with a mix of pathos and farce. Whatever qualities the network or the talent found commendable and marketable in Bankerot seem to have been lost in translation, or translated poorly.
David Schwimmer plays Tommy, a super-savvy sommelier making ends meet as a wine salesman and tempting alcoholism from drinking too much of the product. He’s still reeling from the sudden loss of his wife, Rie (Terra Nova actress Christine Adams), one year earlier. So is his son, TJ (Elijah Jacob), an eyewitness to the hit-and-run that claimed his mom: he hasn’t spoken a word since her death. Tommy and Rie and their hotshot chef pal Dion (Jim Sturgess of Cloud Atlas and Across The Universe) were planning to start a haute eatery in the Bronx. But then Ria passed away and Dion — a wild-side walker with a drug habit and mob debts — went to jail for arson. Now, Tommy and TJ live in the unfinished spaces of an old warehouse that was going to be the restaurant, surrounded by high-end kitchen appliances and stacks of building material and so much dust, shipwreck survivors who’ve made a home in the ruins. But hey, sweet stove.
That’s the backstory for a show that actually begins with Dion’s surprise early parole and his urgent desire to restart their risky restaurant venture. Both things are linked to his underworld entanglements, represented by an enforcer named Patrick, known on the street as The Tooth Fairy because of his practice of wrenching teeth with pliers. Played by Michael Gladis (best known for Mad Men, late of Extant), Patrick is one of those stylized, ironic goons favored by post-Tarantino pulp pop, whose sadism is offset by refined diction and attire. Dion’s world also includes a thuggish cop (The Sopranos’ Michael Rispoli) obsessed with busting The Tooth Fairy, a faithful father who runs a whorehouse, and a lawyer (Erin Cummings) who, in a real eye-roller, treats Dion to cocaine and sex in the prison as he gets ready to leave. Some things can’t wait, I guess. Like pleasing an audience with cheap cable TV-MA.
Another show would organize around either Tommy and his earnestly played grief or Dion and his seedy folly. Feed The Beast tries to organize around both. The result is two poorly cooked tastes that don’t go great together. Schwimmer — who offered a fantastic, complex portrait of decency, delusion and betrayal as Robert Kardashian in The People vs. O.J. Simpson earlier this year — lends his Droopy dog mug and thoughtful demeanor to his widower and does well by the archetype. But the show has nothing new to say about this kind of tragic hurt, or really, anything at all. TJ’s muteness comes off more quirky-gimmicky than authentic and interesting. Sturgess imbues Dion with scruffy charm, but the crime drama stuff is a cop-out to familiar tensions and lacks inspiration. The Tooth Fairy? Really? That’s not even trying to be clever.
Perhaps afraid of bumming us out with the heaviness in Tommy’s side of the story, Feed The Beast tries to stay on the wistful side of seriousness and keep things zesty with farce. The Danish version may have employed these strategies and made them work. Here, they yield shallowness and clunk. I was ready to check out after episode 2. Tommy and Dion seek financing from the former’s ailing father, Aidan, played by the always reliable John Doman (The Wire, Gotham). He’s a scaffolding mogul whose racism has created enmity between him from Tommy and TJ, as Rie was black. The storyline starts okay — Dorman is a compelling presence, even in a wheelchair — but it gathers forced complications along the way and implodes at the end from contrived misunderstandings (born largely of TJ’s contrived muteness) and tonal wonkiness. Feed The Beast isn’t a drag like Vinyl, another Guys Trying To Save A Dream Business saga. But it would work better if it was a sharper Guys Trying To Build A Dream Business satire like Silicon Valley. I might sample a few more eps before giving up: This is a quality cast, and every show operating outside genre deserves a chance to find itself. But unless it finds different, riper ingredients in the kitchen, I doubt Feed The Beast will be serving meals for very long. C