Refried, warmed-over, undercooked, off-brand, stale -- any number of unappetizing metaphors apply to AMC’s terrible new foodie/mobster drama, Feed the Beast. Nearly every component of the show is at least five years past its sell-by date, from the orgasmic incantations of obscure ingredients and the arrogant antiheroism of the insufferable lead to the barely believable, well, everything else. The food porn is admittedly enticing, but the real reason you’ll want to shame-eat a tray of ziti while watching is to swallow the embarrassment you feel for everyone involved.
Despite joking about how there are no white people in the Bronx, Feed the Beast focuses on two of them: lifelong friends Dion (Jim Sturgess), a chef and coke addict newly released from jail after burning down his last restaurant, and Tommy (David Schwimmer), a sommelier (ugh) and widower struggling to care for his traumatized 10-year-old son, TJ (Elijah Jacob). Last night’s series premiere, which will be followed by the second episode on Tuesday (the show’s regular night), tackled issues of race, crime, gentrification, grief, and sex with the subtlety of a hook through the head.
Squeezed hard by the local capo (Michael Gladis), who’s nicknamed the Tooth Fairy for his love of pliers as a torture device, Dion fast-talks his friend Tommy into finally opening their dream restaurant together. The majority of restaurants fail within five years, but Dion promises that their upscale eatery will be so profitable he can pay the 600 grand he owes the Tooth Fairy. “The Bronx is the new Brooklyn,” we’re told over and over again, and the new restaurant, Thirio -- which Sturgess and Schwimmer pronounce cumbersomely with swollen tongues -- will be so amazing that it’ll become essential to early gentrifiers. In the first four episodes, there is no mention of native Bronxites appreciating or not being able to afford Dion and Tommy’s restaurant, because despite a ham-fisted scene about the daily possibility of peril suffered by black or biracial boys like TJ, this show only cares about unbearable white people who are boringly obsessed with food. “The Bronx is New York’s last frontier,” says one character earnestly, sounding as clueless as Columbus. And we haven’t even gotten to the Asian character named Kimono yet.
There’s probably a version of this show that works, including the Danish series on which former Dexter and Nurse Jackie showrunner Clyde Phillips based Feed the Beast. Simply opening a new business, as I’ve argued before, has enough tension and uncertainty built into the enterprise to sustain a series. But Feed the Beast bogs down Dion and Tommy’s new endeavor with three gruel-bland strongmen: the Tooth Fairy, Tommy’s racist and abusive father (John Doman), and a crooked cop (Michael Rispoli, forced to say on-the-nose dialogue like, “I am Ahab and the Tooth Fairy is my white whale”). Their violence bring flashes of adrenaline, yet little compelling drama.
Second-billed Sturgess is the one who commands our attention; Dion is a jackal so existentially jittery he sometimes can’t seem to remember how to manage his lanky, ramshackle limbs. Some of that is the drugs, which fuel his megalomania. One of the show’s few convincing details is how hatefully narcissistic Dion gets on coke. But when he winks a see-ya-never to his defense attorney (Tricia Paoluccio) after an uncomfortable-looking tryst in the jail he’s just been released from or steals $10,000 worth of wine from a warehouse for his new restaurant -- because who would ever suspect the new eatery that sells just one brand of wine of that warehouse heist -- it becomes clear that the show wants us to guiltily chuckle along with Dion, rather than recoil in disgust from him.
Tommy remains mostly sympathetic, but Schwimmer dissolves nearly all the goodwill he earned as the guilt-sick Robert Kardashian on FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. He sulks and whines and makes a wet mop of a suitor for a bizarrely cheerful widow (Lorenza Izzo) he meets in group therapy. (Her name is technically Pilar, but she’d probably also answer to Much Younger And Underwritten Love Interest.) Pilar offers to work at Dion and Tommy’s restaurant for free until they can pay her, because waitresses at mom-and-pop cheap-eats dives apparently don’t need to pay rent. The scenes between Tommy and his father are the stuff of bad teenage poetry; even worse is when Tommy lapses into wine talk. “Let it stretch its legs,” he coos about a bottle of red, giving my eyeballs a workout as they reached toward the back of my skull.
Feed the Beast moves fast, but not smart. The first few shortcuts that Dion takes, like hiring an undocumented immigrant or buying too much high-end equipment, give way to an avalanche of flagrantly idiotic decisions that renders us numb to the dread they’re supposed to induce. And Dion and Tommy are such knuckleheads they don’t bother to read the contract that comes from the latter’s father, whom they know to be some sort of crime-adjacent figure. One major mistake might be funny; several mistakes can make us sad. Feed the Beast commits so many it becomes too dumb to care about.