‘The Bear’ Season 2 lives up to its promise
The Bear was TV’s great underdog story of 2022, a show which debuted in June to little fanfare and became a juggernaut by the end of summer. It’s the biggest comedy FX has ever produced, and one of its most critically lauded series of any kind. Lead actor Jeremy Allen White won several major awards for lead actor in a comedy, and its ensemble and crew won many as well. (Since it premiered after the annual deadline last June, season 1 of The Bear is only now eligible for this year’s Emmys in September.) Stunned by the show’s reception, FX quickly ordered and produced a second season almost as soon as the first one dropped.
Season 1 was a most unusual thing: barely promoted when it premiered, its critical and commercial success seemed to come through pure word of mouth. You could binge all eight episodes in one very stressful afternoon and then tell your friends: “Hey, you should watch this show…”
So this is uncharted territory for The Bear. It’s no longer a hidden gem, it’s a tentpole for FX and Hulu. They expect it to be a big hit. The show also no longer completely centers on Carmy Berzatto (played by White), a Michelin-starred chef making Italian beef out of a perverse sense of brotherly loyalty. With a full ten-episode order for season 2, FX gave the show latitude to develop its supporting characters and grant them interiority. It’s another superlative season from one of the best shows on TV.
The end of season 1 left the crew from the Original Beef of Chicagoland in a surprisingly optimistic place. Discovering hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash hidden in tomato cans (a visceral-looking scene, dirty hands and red splatters on the walls), suddenly gave Carmy and sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edibiri) the means to remake the sandwich shop in their own image: fine dining, Danish modern furniture, a dough mixer that doesn’t predate the Nixon administration.
But that money didn’t come out of nowhere: Uncle Jimmy (Oliver Platt) had loaned it to Carmy’s brother Mike (Jon Bernthal) before Mike’s death. Surely they couldn’t just keep the cash and invest it in the new restaurant. The Bear manages to address this loose end and heighten the tension within the first few minutes of the season, bringing Jimmy further into the fold.
Platt plays Jimmy as a teddy bear with a hidden shank. He’s a friendly family-first uncle with a malevolent gleam behind Coke-bottle glasses. He’s the kind of guy who asks nicely and then doesn’t ask again. He’s also the kind of guy who knows some guys. It’s by no means a revelation that on the periphery of the restaurant world lurk some unsavory operators, but there’s clearly more to Jimmy than a kindly rich benefactor. Malice lurks at all times.
Most of the season takes place as the crew is demolishing The Beef and retrofitting into The Bear, so the restaurant sends its staff out on little excursions, implying that they’ve all bought into Carmy’s big vision. Sydney goes on a culinary tour of Chicago, seeking inspiration at several real-life restaurants as she develops her menu. Directed by Ramy Youssef, who’s so adept at exploring culture shock on his namesake Hulu series, the fourth episode sees pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce) staging at an upscale restaurant in Copenhagen, learning molecular gastronomy techniques with the encouragement of a British chef played by Will Poulter. You’ll recall a season 1 flashback of Joel McHale mercilessly berating Carmy in the kitchen. This time, history doesn’t repeat.
Meanwhile, line cooks Ebraheim and Tina go to culinary school to refine their skills. Tina’s older than her classmates, and reluctant to socialize when invited out to blow off some steam at karaoke. Liza Colón-Zayas wordlessly conveys all this in a remarkable scene that concludes with a pretty rendition of Freddy Fender’s “Before the Next Teardrop Falls”; we see her confidence blossom in real time.
Even Carmy gets a meet-cute, reconnecting with an old childhood crush in the ice cream aisle. The Carmy of season 1 would have never let anyone see him buying ice cream. But lest we think he’s made significant strides, he still proves himself to be the anhedonistic control freak of old.
“I Googled ‘fun’ the other day,” he says in therapy, as though it were a foreign word. The people around him grow and change, but he’s emotionally stunted, stuck with his bad habits. As opening day nears and various disasters loom, we see him retreat inward. When we do finally get a scene of the reunited kitchen in chaos, director and show creator Christopher Storer frames it as one lengthy take, recalling the penultimate episode of season 1. This time the stakes are higher, both for the fictional restaurant and the actual show.
Nowhere is the formalist risk-taking of The Bear more clear than in the sixth episode, a 70-minute interlude told entirely in flashback. Fleshing out Bernthal’s character and incorporating a raft of celebrity cameos, it unpacks the Berzatto backstory and helps the season to conclude on a sobering note: can you honor your family without inheriting their collective dysfunction? Even a Michelin star might not save Carmy from himself. Some dreams are better left unfulfilled.