‘The Bear’ Season 2 Review: FX Comedy Keeps Up

Norman Ray

Global Courant

“You can spend all the time in the world here,” a chef tells his eager protégé as they work in a temple of haute cuisine. “But if you don’t spend enough time out there…” There’s no need for him to finish the sentence. The mentor’s meaning is clear enough: To achieve greatness, you need to expand your horizons.

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This piece of advice comes close to the halfway point of the second season of “The Bear,” long after the FX half-hour has applied the insight to itself. Last year, the tale of a family-owned Chicago sandwich shop taken over by a prodigal son became a surprise summer hit by staying tightly focused on its central location. Each of its eight episodes unfolded like a stage play, as the staff of the Original Beef of Chicagoland careened through the cramped kitchen, confronting their latest crisis. This MO reached its apotheosis in the widely acclaimed penultimate episode, a 20-minute tracking shot that began with the Beef opening itself to online orders and ended with relationships strained to their breaking point.

The first season’s signature style, shaped by creator Christopher Storer and co-showrunner Joanna Calo, had its benefits and drawbacks. On the plus side, “The Bear” thoroughly immersed its audience in the rhythms and lingo of restaurant life, either transporting them to a new professional world or triggering the sense memories of service industry veterans who felt seen. Drinking out of quart containers, addressing colleagues as “chef,” shouting “corner” and “heard” — these acutely observed tics, informed by culinary consultants and actors’ training stints in real kitchens, helped make “The Bear” a viral sensation. I spotted many a blue apron on Instagram last Halloween.

On the other hand, such specificity could turn into monotony, especially as “The Bear” sustained a frantic fever pitch of stress and panic over several hours. The show’s narrow scope also did a disservice to some of the characters, who were either confined to the story’s margins (the protagonist’s sister, thinly rendered as a scold) or kept relatively two-dimensional (we’re told one kitchen staffer has a daughter , but we never see him parent). As a food lover, I was thrilled by the prospect of a prestige series set in the culinary world; as a television critic, I found Season 1 frustratingly uneven, if impeccably acted.

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It’s an early indication of how “The Bear” plans to build on its success that Season 2 begins beyond the four walls of the Beef — or the Bear, as chef-owner Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) rechristens the place as he attempts a pivot to fine dining. Pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce), a former McDonald’s employee inspired by Carmy to devote himself to his craft, is visiting with his sick mother. The scene is brief, but it contains all that’s most enjoyable about the episodes made available to critics: a shift away from Carmy and his “abusive asshole who’s also talented” schtick, hardly breaking new ground in 21st century TV, and toward his employees, who quite literally take “The Bear” to new places as active construction puts their cooking gigs on hiatus.

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Back at the Bear itself, the chaos of regular service has given way to the twin nightmares of DIY renovation and civic bureaucracy. At first, Season 2 — billed as “Part II” in the title card — seems poised to run back the basic structure of Season 1, with the same ups and downs. There’s the anxiety-inducing, all-too-real talk of endless permits and unforeseen complications, clearly informed by real-life experience that enhances the sense of authenticity. (Instead of a printer spitting out an endless stream of tickets, there’s a blaring fire alarm that sets your teeth on edge.) But a simple swap doesn’t make for a meaningful evolution. At least Sugar Berzatto (Abby Elliott) finally gets more to do by stepping in to help her brother as the site’s project manager, since their fuckup “cousin” Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and mechanic pal Fak (Matty Mattheson) clearly aren’t up to the task.

Yet as the episodes go on, “The Bear” starts to branch off. The River North space’s full facelift becomes just one subplot among many. Carmy and his ambitious sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edibiri) decamp to his apartment to develop the new menu (though only after they take the jeans out of his oven). Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) and Ebra (Edwin Lee Gibson) are dispatched to culinary school for a more formal education than Carmy’s disastrous attempts to impose the brigade system on a sandwich joint. The phenomenal fourth episode, directed by Ramy Youssef, sends Marcus to Copenhagen, where he works an apprenticeship under a sensei played by a magnetically intense Will Poulter.

Such broadening naturally allows “The Bear” to spend some of the capital, both financial and cultural, it’s acquired by breaking into the zeitgeist. (To cite another FX offering, even “Atlanta” didn’t go to Europe until its third season.) When Sydney ventures out on a scouting trip, she starts her tour at Kasama, the real-life Filipino restaurant that just picked up its second James Beard Award earlier this month, then proceeds to visit with a who’s who of Chicago chefs and institutions, from Avec to Giant to Lao Peng You. “The Bear” helped put a spotlight on the city’s food scene; now that the show is a known quantity, members of that community seem happy to pitch in.

These storylines are impressive flexes, and winning nods to the show’s niche. But they also help “The Bear” feel more like television, a medium that rewards cultivating a deep bench and an adaptable approach. The series can still show signs of repetitive tendencies and overwrought sentimentality. An early scene recycles the support-group-as-monologue-prompt setup from the Season 1 finale; Molly Gordon is introduced as Carmy’s ex turned love interest with a meet-cute that leans too hard on nostalgia and cheesy romanticism. (She accurately predicts the name of the new restaurant “because you’re the Bear, and I remember you.”) It’s no coincidence that these weaker points tend to involve Carmy, a character perfectly rendered by White who’s still the least interesting part of his own show.

“The Bear” is best when it leans into its protagonists’ masochistic obsession without indulging their self-serving narratives. Sydney and Carmy’s time in the lab is a showcase for the best platonic chemistry you’ll find anywhere on screen — which only helps us feel Syd’s pain as she starts to worry Carmy may not be the most reliable or collaborative business partner. Marcus silently taking notes as he eats his way through a bag from the famous Hart Bageri is the opposite of the airy pretension skewered in “The Menu,” last year’s other major piece of scripted food media. These are people on a quixotic, self-defeating quest for excellence, building their skills in lockstep with the show.

All 10 episodes of “The Bear” Season 2 will premiere on Hulu on Thursday, June 22.

‘The Bear’ Season 2 Review: FX Comedy Keeps Up

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