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‘Shh, chef!’ The agonising, joyful power of silent TV episodes
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‘Shh, chef!’ The agonising, joyful power of silent TV episodes

The Bear’s third season begins not with a bang but simmering, slow-cooked silence. The culinary comedy-drama’s return had been feverishly awaited, even more so since it scooped six Emmys earlier this year. Anticipation was higher than ever but, like a stubborn Chicago chef, creator Christopher Storer changed the menu and refused to serve up something predictable.

The new series subverts expectations by opening with an almost dialogue-free, 37-minute collage of its hero’s foodie CV. Flashbacks to the previous jobs of Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) show what made him the perfectionist chef he is today. We watch him shell peas, juice blood oranges, truss free-range chickens and fillet Japanese fish. He labels things with green tape, picks micro-herbs with tweezers and painstakingly scrubs surfaces. Well, he’s got to maintain those muscly arms somehow.

As his bullying ex-boss Dave Fields (the eminently punchable Joel McHale) cruelly teaches Carmy: “Never repeat ingredients.” Similarly, Storer swaps the sweaty, shouty, pressurised pan-rattling of the first two seasons for something low, slow and chewily contemplative. Aptly, it left many fans speechless.

The episode, titled Tomorrow, becomes a patchwork of defining memories and pivotal dishes, soundtracked by Nine Inch Nails. The few words that do float by include “Less is more”, “Subtract” and “Quiet, chefs!”. Without the usual verbal pyrotechnics, viewers can tune into the background hum of grief and trauma as Carmy metaphorically presses that knife wound on his hand. As is often pointed out, there aren’t a whole lot of laughs in this comedy-drama.

At times, the episode resembles Netflix show Chef’s Table or a turbo-charged M&S ad (“This isn’t just food porn, this is The Bear food porn”). It’s sumptuously shot, impeccably performed and really rather beautiful. Carmy has always been the strong, silent type.

The Bear losing its roar is by no means the first time a show has memorably eschewed dialogue. It’s a TV tradition that goes all the way back to a typically eerie 1961 edition of The Twilight Zone called The Invaders. When lead actor Agnes Moorehead read the script, she asked the director where her part had gone. There was only one line in the entire episode – and it wasn’t even hers.

Silent killers … Agnes Moorehead in a classic episode of The Twilight Zone.View image in fullscreen

When long-running shows take a punt on a wordless episode, it’s often hailed as one of their finest. Silent movie-style burglary farce A Quiet Night In is regularly voted one of the top episodes of Inside No 9. Similarly acclaimed is Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Hush, which saw the demonic Gentlemen steal the voices of everyone in Sunnydale. It was written by Joss Whedon in waspish retaliation to critics saying his witty dialogue was the best thing about the show. He made it so nobody said a word for 27 minutes.

Only Murders in the Building won Emmys for its episode told from the perspective of the deaf man in apartment 6B, bringing viewers into his world via an ambient soundscape and sign language. As OMITB director Cherien Dabis said: “When dialogue is not a factor, you have to really think deeply about the visual storytelling.”

Conspiracy thriller Mr Robot pressed mute for ninja-like heist episode 405 Method Not Allowed. The rebooted X-Files did a Black Mirror-esque story with Mulder and Scully silently dining in an AI sushi restaurant. BoJack Horseman spent an entire episode underwater, unable to talk. Until he realised he could have done all along and his closing words were, “Oh you have got to be kidding me.” Inspired by Lost in Translation, it proved one of the most poignant animated episodes of all time.

Quiet time: BoJack Horseman’s underwater episode.View image in fullscreen

It doesn’t have to be an entire episode. Just a non-verbal scene can flip the format on its head and remind us that TV silence is golden. The centrepiece of Happy Valley’s finale was that wordless six-minute “Peeping Tommy” sequence, where a desperate Tommy Lee Royce broke into the house of his nemesis, Sgt Catherine Cawood, while she dozed in an armchair.

Dramatic silence can crank up tension to near-unbearable levels. Mare of Easttown’s The Silence of the Lambs tribute sequence had a wounded, unarmed Kate Winslet fleeing from a serial rapist in a breathlessly intense five-minute set piece. Line of Duty’s finale featured a dialogue-free “Who is H?” two-minute tease as the corrupt cop kingpin was led into AC-12 under armed guard. It was a further seven minutes before the guilty party said anything more than “No comment”.

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Moments of peace and quiet also communicate thought. In Small Axe’s Mangrove, director Steve McQueen spent 40 seconds lingering on a fallen colander, rolling on the restaurant’s kitchen floor during yet another unjust police raid, and several minutes on the face of proprietor Frank Crichlow (a terrific turn from Shaun Parkes), smoking and pondering his fate as a reluctant activist.

Michael Chiklis had not one but three wordless scenes in the climactic episodes of The Shield: the agonised 42-second pause before his full confession, the two-minute guilt trip when confronted with Shane’s murder-suicide, and the mesmerising four minutes when he contemplated the reality of his desk job. For a show as loud and pacy as The Shield, such stillness was searingly powerful.

The American Office scene where Jim finds out that Pam is pregnant is 40 seconds of sheer face-acting joy. And truly heartbreaking was the Say Hello, Wave Goodbye scene from Master of None which showed Dev’s dejected face in the back of an Uber for three minutes as he realised he’d missed his chance with Francesca. In the very next episode, Aziz Ansari doubled down with an eight-minute silent sequence to portray a deaf bodega cashier’s daily experience – complete with a sign language row with her boyfriend about oral sex.

Comedy isn’t all talk either. Frasier episode Three Valentines featured a six-minute solo sequence of Niles getting ready for a date. His obsession with his trouser creases ended up wrecking the apartment. As Eddie the dog looked on, head cocked to one side, all David Hyde Pierce emitted were yelps, grunts and groans. It was like an upmarket Mr Bean.

In an audiovisual medium, eliminating the audio and accentuating the visual is a risk that can reap rewards. Some of the all-time top shows have proved that actions speak louder than words. Now The Bear has joined that elite club. Not so much “Yes, chef!” as “Shh, chef!”

Source: theguardian.com