Ask any viewer what phrase first comes to mind when they think of the FX television show “The Bear”, and they’ll likely reply with a military-style “Yes, chef” – the rallying cry of protagonist Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto’s (performed by the actor Jeremy Allen White) rag-tag kitchen team.
However, press a little further and they’ll inevitably land on “Cousin.” Uttered, screamed, pleaded and whined, “cousin” ranks high among Carmy’s curmudgeonly colleague Richie’s most uttered words, served up in reference to his relationship with Carmy and doused in beefy Chicago inflections courtesy of the actor Ebon Moss-Bachrach.
It’s important to note that Carmy and Richie aren’t related by blood; Richie was the best friend of Mikey (Jon Bernthal), Carmy’s older brother whose tragic death was the show’s inciting incident. Yet, the use of “cousin” as a moniker for their bond is deliberate, and profound. In the world of “The Bear”, being cousins signifies a shared history, a tethering that even the most gut-wrenching mid-service obscenities could not sever.
It’s a connection that’s getting a lot of, if not love, at least interrogation during this television awards season. Consider Netflix’s “Beef”, starring Steven Yeun and Ali Wong, both of whom took home Golden Globes for their portrayal of strangers-turned-enemies Danny Cho and Amy Lau. While the bulk of the action dances around Danny and Amy navigating rage and repentance, a significant subplot is devoted to Danny’s less-than-lawful cousin Isaac. Played by the controversial actor and artist David Choe, Isaac (like Richie) is brash, outspoken, reluctant to do things by the book and appears to be perpetually cooking up a new scheme.
And from the highways of Los Angeles to New York’s legacy media landscape, the actor Nicholas Braun’s socially awkward Greg Hirsch in HBO’s “Succession” stumbles through the storyboard under the watchful eye of his equally hapless mentor Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), committing endless faux pas beside, or rather above – Braun stands at a staggering six-foot, seven-inches – his dismissive Roy cousins.
Cousin Greg, as he was quickly dubbed, emerged as an early fan favourite character, whose role in the “Succession” ecosystem was that of the jester: an opportunistic fool who, as the writer Dave Itzkoff noted in his 2021 New York Times profile of Braun, “could have ended up a hapless second-tier character if Braun hadn’t helped elevate him into a first-rank buffoon.”
Pop culture depictions of cousins aren’t a novelty. One of the most comedic and touching relationships on the television show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” was shared by poles-apart cousins Will and Carlton. The world’s two most famous Hobbits (Bilbo Baggins of “The Hobbit”, and Frodo Baggins of “Lord of the Rings”) are cousins, albeit twice removed. Would we care less about the death of the hot headed Tybalt in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” if he weren’t Juliet’s cousin? And in “Pride and Prejudice”, the writer Jane Austen shackled her Bennet sisters with the distant and dour cousin, Mr Collins. But what makes the relationship so fertile for storytelling, and so compelling for viewing (“Beef,” “The Bear” and “Succession” each won best series honours in three different categories at the 2024 Golden Globe Awards)?
The specificity of the connection. To be cousins is to be more than just friends though, crucially, less responsibility than siblings (generally speaking). Cousins inhabit the familiarity of favourite, seasonal clothing – like the treasured coat that keeps us warm in winter or the sunscreen-stained sarong that always smells like summertime. They’re often the unavoidable co-stars of our childhood family holidays, packed happily like tinned fish into accommodation long outgrown, anchoring us to our younger selves by their mere presence. Beloved cousins help shape our best memories. Oddball cousins provide endless dinner table fodder. When a cousin succeeds we can rightfully brag about the close association. When a cousin causes mayhem we breathe easy for the distance. In other words, the appeal lies in their perfect degree of separation.
By blood or by force, distant or twice removed – if this year’s television industry awards teach us anything it’s that cousins make for the ultimate supporting characters. And as the band Vampire Weekend insisted on their 2010 track “Cousins”: It’s a line that’s always running.