TV: The Bear (Season 2)

While in many ways a conventional extension of the first season, The Bear’s second reminds me a little of Atlanta, leaning ever so slightly into anthology-show territory. It remains an intense depiction of dysfunctional families both traditional and created, but also steps back to breathe, using its arc to isolate the cast and tell more contained stories. The results are, once again, breathtaking.

At the end of the previous season, The Original Beef of Chicagoland has closed for good, but its crew—led by enigmatic owner Carmen Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) and up-and-coming chef Sydney Adamu (Ayo Edebiri)—have plans to continue with a new venture. The new restaurant is The Bear, Carmen’s long-time dream, finally coming true. But creating a new restaurant from the ashes of an old one is a stressful, complicated business, involving time, decisions, renovations, and new ideas. Securing the investment of Carmy’s wealthy Uncle Jimmy (Oliver Platt), Carmen and Sydney set an ambitious schedule for opening the new establishment. The journey from concept to realization is an arduous one full of frustrations, but also leads to personal transformation for the members of the crew, as they work to level up their skills in preparation for the new challenge.

The Bear has one aspect that’s a little difficult to like: a tendency to allow its ensemble scenes to ramble, with shouty, semi-improvisational escalations that border on the histrionic. Occasionally this grows tiresome, but perversely, it’s also a strength, leading to moments of incredible magic and drama. The centerpiece of the season, “Fishes,” may best illustrate both ends of this spectrum; it’s a flashback episode set at a Christmas dinner that reveals important Berzatto family history. A star-studded affair that goes a long way to explaining the mental health issues of both Carmen and his sister Natalie (Abby Elliott), “Fishes” is an overwhelming episode full of raucous, overlapping dialogue. Sometimes the sheer intensity of it feels almost too heightened to be real, and yet the effect is enthralling—and strategic, as it dramatizes the psychological abuse that plagues the family later on. The guest cast of this one showcases what a hot casting ticket The Bear is: Jon Bernthal returns as the catalytic Mikey, while Jamie Lee Curtis, Gillian Jacobs, John Mulaney, Bob Odenkirk, and Sarah Paulson are introduced into the Berzatto clan. The chemistry is, as Carmy might say, “fire.” It’s a hard episode to watch, but a crucial, necessary one for understanding the psyches of Carmen, Natalie, and “Cousin” Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach).

Overall, though, season two won me over more with its quiet patience. Renovating the Beef and building the Bear comes with its fair share of shouting and cursing, but also has moments for reflection and growth. For Carmen, this includes an unexpected romantic relationship with an old flame, an ER doctor named Claire (Molly Gordon). But the standout episodes focus on the team’s learning experiences: “Sundae,” in which Sydney goes on a restaurant tour to expand her horizons and stretch her palate; “Honeydew,” which sends Marcus (Lionel Boyce) to Copenhagen to study under a skilled pastry chef named Luca (Will Poulter); and “Forks,” wherein Richie “interns” at an intense, upscale restaurant and finally finds a direction (with the help of Olivia Colman, no less). This season has its sights set squarely on the journey, the restaurant a microcosm for living life, with all its ups and downs, routines and triumphs and disasters. The Bear gave itself a tough act to follow after its first season, but it totally levels up to meet the challenge here, a unique, triumphant work of uncommon artistry.

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