Season 1 of ‘The Bear’ opens with an invitation to chaos, before launching you into the same anarchic party. Carm (Jeremy Allen White) is sleeping, dreaming she’s on a bridge in the Chicago ring, where he opens a bear cage to release, what else, a live, snarling, somewhat perturbed brown bear. When he wakes up, it’s time to cook. The restaurant he inherited from his late brother Michael (Jon Bernthal) beckons and Carm has to serve signature beef while he puts out figurative and literal fires left and right. It’s chaos combined with chaos, or to use a culinary metaphor: it’s out of the pan and into the fire.
The second season of “The Bear” opens silently. Well, close to silence. Instead of the click of a gas stove igniting, there’s the methodical beep of a heart rate monitor. Marcus (Lionel Boyce) is watching her mother as she lies peacefully asleep in her bed. He gently applies lotion to her hands and covers her forehead with a washcloth before stepping outside to scrape the ice off the windshield and get to work. Marcus is in no hurry. He’s not stressed. He’s cold, probably tired, but he doesn’t show it, and when the pastry chef arrives at The Beef, he’s all smiles.
“The Bear” doesn’t keep up this beat. How could it? Christopher Storer’s FX production became a summer sleeper hit for Hulu last year by capturing the intense essence of a working kitchen. Everyone called everyone “Chef”. Everyone shouted at everyone – whether it was “chef” or “corner” or “behind” or another timely and more precise request – and had to shout only to be heard over the clatter of pots and pans, shuffling feet and other voices. With tight half-hour episodes, catchy one-liners from blue-collar characters, and near-constant forward momentum, “The Bear” has carved out a space for itself in a crowded TV market, just as The Beef has in the competitive sandwich scene of Chicago.
But now The Beef is gone. In its place, Carm and Sydney (an excellent Ayo Edebiri) are hoping to open The Bear, a Michelin-rated fine-dining restaurant worthy of their talents. Season 2 depicts this transformation, replacing the daily grind of running a restaurant with the daily grind of opening one, embracing an evolution of its own. Gone are the abrupt surreal additions (like dreaming of a bear or acting out a sitcom nightmare). Only what is real remains, and what remains is stronger and richer in itself. The intensity returns before the first episode ends, as “every second counts” becomes the mantra of the new store. But changing routines, as well as a few twists of fate, force Carm and her crew to consider why they’re putting their heart and soul into a dangerous and often destructive endeavor. What brought them here? What makes them dedicated to this particular pursuit? What motivates them to be of service?
This has been the central question of “The Bear” from the beginning: why do it? — but season two does exactly what seasons two should do: it fine-tunes the narrative, amplifies what works, and digs deeper: both into who these people are and what draws them to this life. If Season 1 looked at how kitchens could become vomit-inducing fear factories thanks to egomaniacal chefs with abusive work habits, then Season 2 asks what would draw someone to such a place to begin with. (Hint: it’s not just the food!) The new 10-episode season goes beyond finding a working compromise between family ties and individual passions, into what happiness means even when you’re an artistic careerist trapped in a capitalist society.
Many of these themes already existed, but the way “The Bear” tackles them in Season 2 is as compelling as ever, with added flashes of confidence, consequence, and consideration. Silence is golden, even when it lasts just a minute.
That said: “The Bear” still rips. In keeping with its modus operandi, Season 2 picks up shortly after Carmy finds $300,000 stashed in dozens of tomato cans, a surprise gift from Michael, who had borrowed the money from Uncle Jimmy (Oliver Platt). Cost estimates are high and rising. There’s new equipment to buy, new menus to create, and new staff to hire, not to mention renovations and an endless list of permits required. Time, as always, is running out.
It would be relatively easy for the series to revert to familiar patterns, and the initial episodes ensure they deliver the favourites. Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) cracks some lame jokes. Gary (Corey Hendrix) and Fak (Matty Matheson) entertain with ineptitude, through a cheery teardown montage. Tina (Liza Colon-Zayas) and Ebraheim (Edwin Lee Gibson) bond as old teammates on different tracks. Natalie (Abby Elliott), Carm’s sister who is helping with paperwork and planning, outlines the many hurdles they will have to overcome to make this new business work, which sparks heated debates about how best to proceed, if they can get it all done, and who should do what.
“The Bear” never sounds slow, but it slows down. Carm glimpses what life outside the restaurant (and outside his family) might be like with the reappearance of an old flame. Sydney, on a stunningly beautiful tour of Chicago, seeks inspiration for new dishes from the Windy City’s best cuisines (including a well-deserved shoutout to the world’s best breakfast sandwich at with). Richie faces his own purpose.
No, really, let me say it one more time: Richie, the often overwhelming talker of Season 1, goes on a journey of self-reflection in Season 2 and gets That guy looking inside convincingly could be one of the biggest hits of the new season. Previously, her often overwhelming bullshit could test our patience with a character who didn’t always earn the empathy Moss-Bachrach was so adept at conjuring. But in the new season, Richie is a highlight, and without betraying who he was before.
Season 2 evolves with similar dexterity. Along Sydney’s self-selected Taste of Chicago, you not only eat a mind-blowing number of delicious dishes; he also keeps coming across closed shops, farewell messages and dusty signs asking for help. “The Bear” acknowledges the struggles facing restaurants right now, even in a season that’s more character-driven than issue-driven (and even when The Bear’s staff skates through some of those issues in later episodes). Carm’s sudden crush also does double duty. He’s never been distracted by his work before him, and balancing his busy schedule creates unavoidable issues (at work and at home) that are rarely explored with so few clichés and so many nuances.
FX (rightly) required reviews posted prior to the premiere to refrain from certain details in the second half of the season, so all I’ll say (for now) is that they’ve put their budget to good use. Long before “Ted Lasso” became a popular joke, too many half-hour shows (of any genre) stretched their running times to fit every conceivable idea, usually to the detriment of spectacle. “The Bear” indulges here and there, including an hour-long rumor, but knows exactly why he’s doing it, and the resulting episodes never feel their length. Carried away by the magnetic turns of White, Edebiri and Moss-Bachrach (along with a deftly assembled ensemble by Jeanie Bacharach) and an unflinching sense of purpose, ‘The Bear’ soars once more. Only this time you’ll be even better satiated.
“The Bear” Season 2 premieres all 10 episodes Thursday, June 22 on Hulu.