Needs A Certain Something
by ELEANOR MORROW
Feed the Beast
creator Clyde Phillips
There is a scene in the first episode of the new AMC series Feed the Beast that typifies Clyde Phillips’ writing style completely. Tommy (David Schwimmer) shows up at a group meeting where they workshop his grief over the death of his wife Rie. The group’s leader asks Pilar (Lorenza Izzo) to stand in for Tommy’s wife in a role-playing exercise. “I miss you,” Tommy explains to this woman he has just met. “I need you. We were supposed to raise our son together. We were supposed to open a restaurant together. I love you. You’re like a phantom limb.” Pilar listens with a look on her face like she just won the lottery. In Phillips’ vision of the world on shows like Dexter and Nurse Jackie, the deepest pain imaginable also brings the most unlikely pleasure.
This paradigm is exemplified by Tommy’s best friend, recent parolee and gifted chef Dion (Jim Burgess). Burgess is the central performer on Feed the Beast, and to be completely honest the show would be quite drab without him. Fortunately, Burgess needed a role exactly like this one and he found it. Not only is he the most gorgeous, irresistible creature ever to saunter into a room and slice a leg of lamb, Burgess’s performance as the cocaine-addled Dion naturally projects a non-physical threat to any established order. Just looking at him is dangerous.
Feed the Beast creator Clyde Phillips rarely concerns himself with deep, emotional connections, seeming to favor the abscesses constructed by various forms of sociopathic or antisocial behavior. The person Tommy Moran cares about the most is his son T.J., but that cannot help feel like a stand-in for his dead wife. Because of his grief, every relationship that follows can exist only on a surface level.
But that is entertaining enough for television – if Dion were not such a deceitful person, he would never have ended up in jail, where he became popular by cooking for the guards. His talent at cooking, and by extension, shaping his personality around his gift, is what makes him attractive to others. If God did not bless him in this way, he would simply be a piece of shit.
Dion owes money to a mafioso named Patrick Woichik (Michael Gladis), fresh off his disappointingly flimsy run as Paul Kinsey on Mad Men. Gladis tries to imbue the role with all the menace he can muster, but at his core he seems nothing like a Bronx mobster. It is not that Gladis is the wrong age or type for the part; it is more that the role of paper-thin villain with a funny nickname does not really suit his particular set of skills. Vicious men are usually at least one other thing, if not two.
I understand trying to cast against type and not reinforce certain Italian-American stereotypes, since Feed the Beast pretends to set itself in a Greek community. But the decision hurts the show by trying to offer something that is different but still ultimately the same.
Dion and Tommy decide to open a Greek restaurant in the Bronx by reclaiming money owed to Tommy by his racist, wheelchair-bound father, Aidan (familiar character actor John Doman). Tommy’s father is something of a drain on the show as well. It is difficult enough to constantly re-experience one painful backstory in the case of Tommy’s wife — but to have a second, peripheral tragedy that consumes him distracts from both.
The Danish series Feed the Beast bases itself on had a larger cast of characters surrounding their protagonist, and I applaud the move to a darker feel and shorter focus. These two male antagonists unfortunately seem muted and a bit powerless in comparison to our heroes, and end up detracting instead of adding to the milieu. Even with these criticisms in mind, I don’t fully understand the reviews Feed the Beast has received, which are overall rather horrid for a show of this pedigree. For me, watching Schwimmer’s foray into drama opposite the insanely charismatic Burgess would be enough for several seasons. There is no arguing that there is something missing from the story being told, however.
I think the main mistake is with Burgess’ character, since he must carry the show. Giving him career success to reclaim is a marvelous start and we want to see him overcome his issues, but having him win the love of a family and a woman would make him even more sympathetic. Instead he fucks his lawyer and Tommy’s son already seems to like him for no reason. No one can or should succeed at being that much of a misanthrope.
Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan. You can find an archive of her writing in these pages here.
“Be Careful Where You Park Your Car” – Cat’s Eyes (mp3)