The war in the kitchen is over, for now. Season 2 of FX’s “The Bear” is not about head chef Carmy (Jeremy Allen White), his co-owner cousin Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), and sous chef Sydney (by long-reigning series MVP Ayo Edebiri) commandeering a lively Chicago beef kitchen as if it were a battleship, ordering their fellow chefs to fire up every chicken they’ve got or to make giardiniera from scratch. In its first four episodes screened for the press, “The Bear” appeals to us with a different stress–opening a restaurant in Chicago.
With so many lovable characters and arcs forged in the fires of The Original Beef of Chicagoland, it’s a welcome and inspired change of pace. Season one was all about fluctuating energy, about making us appreciate the long moments of stillness that contrasted heavily with the ruthless “‘Whiplash in a Kitchen” experience that made the show so chaotic but immersive. “The Bear” switches up the dramatic menu, coursing out its conflicts slower than the first season, but it’s still just as good. It doesn’t need the members of its work-shift family to be in the kitchen to be compelling. And it proves that by sending them off on finite emotional journeys as they improve their craft for the sake of the new restaurant: the totally endearing Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) and Ebraheim (Edwin Lee Gibson) experience the formal rigor of culinary school; in a sweet episode directed by Ramy Youssef, we get a long look at Marcus (Lionel Boyce) traveling to Denmark to learn more about baking, his tender hands, and presence, given center stage.
Taking place right just weeks after Season 1’s emotional cliffhanger, in which Carmy’s intense journey at his brother’s business led him to a stash of cash inside tomato sauce jars, “The Bear” has Carmy and everyone sprinting through a new unknown. There are permits to be obtained, the place has to be gutted, new stoves to be bought, cooks need to be hired, a new menu has to be concocted, and a project manager needs to come together (maybe it’s gonna be Abby Elliott’s Sugar, but she keeps saying she’ll think about it), all while an opening date looms. In the first episode, directed by creator and often writer/director Christopher Storer, a new motivation for former New York hot-shot Carmy is ignited, a return to his glory. The new restaurant, The Bear, will be his greatest artistic statement yet. Meanwhile, the show’s emblematic fast cuts are saved for montages where the calendar toward opening is splattered with chaotic notes and cuss words. There are enough stakes in this second season, even though the knives are down.
Jeremy Allen White remains a king of the confessional close-up in this second season, again guiding this show to its more sentimental and existential passages. He flourishes with quiet moments made of close-up shots and magnetic monologues. Here, he talks about losing a sense of pleasure in what he enjoys, tracing back to when he was a kid. When he finds a certain artifact from the restaurant’s earlier days, a Taste of Chicago event, he says, “That was fun.” As we gather from this show’s gentle emotional development, he probably hasn’t said that sentence in years. In other scenes, the camera, and Allen White’s performance, give us no option but to focus and notice a little scar on his face. He remains a compelling, sensitive titan in this show’s growing universe.
As the series moves away from the directly volatile environment that it immersed us in the first season, this second season has a funny mascot for its shift in Richie. Having graced a manslaughter charge for a beatdown (which turned out to be aggravated assault, to his delight), Richie is now trying to mute the impulse to be large and explosive, and it makes for great character comedy here. Yes, he still bickers with squeaky sidekick Fak (Matty Matheson) over the small stuff, but now he counts to five before exploding or bringing his voice down to a whisper. It makes for many moments in which you realize how funny this slapstick is in “The Bear” and how much everyone involved would see that if they, too, were on the outside looking in.
“The Bear” continues to wrestle with how the creation of something so rewarding can still leave a void, and we feel the sorrow from that in Richie. Richie speaks openly early on about purpose, with likely all of the criticisms directed at him from Season 1 about him starting to settle in. It’s a larger question that lingers over the show’s first four episodes, enriching the overall point of this show. Season 1 dabbled used its dramatic boldness for some magical realism, and this new direction seems primed to focus on the needs of these characters and why they bother doing what they do.
And yet, “The Bear” still has its intoxicating edge because it remains faithful to something that Chicagoans know–Chicago has the best food in the world. As Carmy and Sydney work on the new menu, Edibiri is sent on her own charming and funny palette-enhancing odyssey around the city in episode three, which features an all-star cast of the Second City’s most delicious gems: Lao Peng You, Avec, Pizza Lobo, Margie’s Candies, and Kasama. (One Chicagoan’s gripe: Watching Sydney stroll into Kasama, and then see her easily ordered food get a loving montage is not realistic, nor is it going to make the real-life hour-long line to get inside any less life-or-death.)
That salivating victory lap for Chicago cuisine comes after a sobering beginning, where news clips about recently closed restaurants pack the screen and fill Sydney with more uncertainty: rest in peace to Chicago’s Funkenhausen, The Bristol, Schoolyard, and more. Creating a restaurant is a high-reward, higher-risk pursuit. And in the gripping but less intense plotting of this new season, it’s another poignant way for this heartfelt show to make us appreciate the pleasure of unforgettable food by matching it with pain from the process. [B+]
“The Bear” Season 2 arrives on Hulu on June 22.