Considering AMC holds a relatively high standard after producing three critically acclaimed series — “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” — it makes sense why “Feed the Beast” has received dismal reviews. Based on the Danish TV show “Bankerot” and developed by “Dexter” showrunner Clyde B. Phillips, “Feed the Beast” is missing the “it” factor that made those three aforementioned programs so successful and distinctive among the rest of television. In the show, there aren’t any colorful yet deeply flawed characters, slow-burning drama or tantalizing dialogue — at least, not yet.
While “Feed the Beast” possesses some potential as a fast-paced melodrama, it suffers from middling writing, wooden acting and a lack of chemistry between its two leads. Jim Sturgess (“Across the Universe”) overperforms as the arrogant, cocaine-snorting chef Dion Patras, who gets out of prison after setting his restaurant on fire. His former partner Tommy Moran (David Schwimmer, “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson”) is an alcoholic sommelier-turned-wine-rep and recent widow, his deceased wife Rie (Christine Adams, “Pushing Daisies”) having been part of the duo’s restaurant business. Together, Tommy and Dion are (apparently) a great team, but tensions and past mistakes immediately fuel friction between the two once they reunite.
In terms of its plot, “Feed the Beast” can actually make for an engaging, ambitious story. However, the first episode, aptly titled “Pilot Light,” doesn’t ignite a strong enough fuse to set the story in motion. Within the first 10 minutes of “Feed the Beast,” there’s already a lot going on, especially because it involves sex, drugs and even some violence to boot. After being released from prison, Dion soon finds trouble when he attempts to outrun an angry mob boss named Patrick “The Tooth Fairy” Woichick (Michael Gladis, “Mad Men”), to whom he owes money. Despite Gladis’ best efforts, his character remains bereft of any personality or threatening presence, a bland villain with a ridiculous nickname — is there anything more menacing-sounding than “The Tooth Fairy”?
Meanwhile, a sullen, wine-drinking Tommy attempts to be a caring single parent to his only son T.J. (newcomer Elijah Jacob), who has become silent after witnessing his mother’s tragic death. T.J. is the most interesting character so far on “Feed the Beast,” not just because he doesn’t utter a single line of dialogue, but also because his quietness provides an authentic firmness to the show’s shaky emotional core. Schwimmer’s dramatic chops portraying lookalike and O.J.’s ex-confidant Robert Kardashian on “American Crime Story” were decent enough and are again on display in “Feed the Beast.” However, Schwimmer’s individual performance struggles to develop his troubled character into something profound and three-dimensional. Similarly, Sturgess resorts to making Dion into a loathsome, hot-headed chef stereotype, like Bradley Cooper in “Burnt” or Catherine Zeta-Jones in “No Reservations.” His scenes with Schwimmer also feel as disconnected as their characters, the two flatly and often unnaturally delivering lines to one another, as if Schwimmer and Sturgess were just placed next to one another having met only a minute before shooting.
Other than T.J., the most intriguing aspect about “Feed the Beast” is the food itself. Thanks to some sumptuous cinematography and stylized, quick-cut editing, the food made on the show is almost too savory and mouth-watering to look at. There’s a great fantasy scene at one point, where Dion holds up a plate and describes an eclectic dish of grilled octopus topped with cherry tomatoes, which can only Tommy (and the viewer) sees. In a later sequence, after a spontaneous moment of inspiration, Dion cooks up some heavenly pasta for Tommy and T.J., a sweet gesture that highlights the duo’s complicated, close relationship, only for a fleeting moment.
Unlike other AMC first-season competitors “Preacher” and “The Night Manager,” “Feed the Beast” hasn’t found its footing right away. It bounces around thematically and tonally, juggling between a mediocre crime subplot, a character study on grief and loss and a food-centric story about the cut-throat environment of high-class cooking. At the moment, “Feed the Beast” seems unsure of itself, focusing on which of the three storylines could be the strongest, instead of how each storyline can prove to be compelling on their own, as well as blending easily with one another. If you come hungry before watching “Feed the Beast,” don’t expect to be full by the end.