This article contains spoilers for the Hulu series “The Bear.”
Even before the bump in Italian beef sandwich sales last year, you could sense an immediate, almost feverish enthusiasm for “The Bear.” You could measure it, not in actual views (Hulu doesn’t release streaming data), but in thirsty memes of Carmen (Carmy) Berzatto, the broken chef with a wavy jumble of unwashed hair and a startled, pink face that always seemed recently slapped.
Carmy, played by Jeremy Allen White, became the patron saint of obsessive chefs, their personal lives obliterated by a dedication to restaurant work. After his brother’s death, Carmy was determined to get his family’s ancient, grimy, lawless sandwich shop into shape while also, somehow, being a good guy — a dilemma he tackled between exploding toilets, fights, Al-Anon meetings and panic attacks.
“I’m fine, really,” Carmy told his sister over the phone, “I just have trouble breathing sometimes and wake up screaming.”
The breakout show’s portrayal of the anxiety and tension that rule restaurant kitchens was darkly realistic. And while the second season, which premiered Thursday on Hulu, doesn’t completely leave those pressures behind, it conveys an unexpected optimism about the restaurant industry and the people who make it run.
Season 2 of “The Bear” swivels attention away from the chef and his trauma to spend time with other characters and, in the process, does something that TV and movies about restaurants hardly ever do: It subverts the power structure of the brigade system and invites more workers into the center of the story, where they belong.
Though it never feels instructive or moralizing, there’s a sense of hopefulness as “The Bear” wrestles with larger themes of hospitality. Each member of the kitchen crew finds moments of joy and deep meaning in their work, whether they’re drawn to it by devotion or dysfunction (or a broken emulsion of both).
One episode focuses on Marcus, the young pastry cook who’s a sponge for new techniques and ingredients, played by Lionel Boyce. In Copenhagen, he interns with a brilliant pastry chef played by Will Poulter.
It doesn’t matter that recent reporting on the stage economy of Copenhagen, one of the world’s fine-dining capitals, has revealed a pattern of abuse and dangerous working conditions for unpaid interns. In “The Bear,” the stage is a dream: Marcus’s tasks are simply to learn from a skilled but kind and patient mentor, to get out and about and feel inspired, and to come up with some new dishes of his own.
No one was more suspicious of the fussy quirks of fine-dining kitchens than Richie, the fragile chaos machine played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach. But after a stage of his own in a Chicago fine-dining restaurant, Richie is completely transformed. He cares about organizing pens and polishing silverware. He wears suits now.
In an arc that made me weep, Richie learns that he has the aptitude and composure for expediting, for being in the eye of the storm, for channeling all of his pettiness and intensity into fixing problems and making diners happy.
There were flashbacks, in the first season of “The Bear,” of a toxic chef who trashed cooks on the line, telling them they’d be better off dead. But here the show seems keen to remind us that fine dining can work differently, and that wonderful people are still scattered throughout it.
“The Bear” always blurred the lines between family and workplace in ways that felt both tender and menacing, and the most nightmarish kitchen scene takes place not in a professional kitchen, but at a Berzatto family Christmas at home a few years back, when Carmy’s brother Michael was still alive.
Jamie Lee Curtis is devastating as their alcoholic mother who can’t get through cooking and serving a beautiful holiday dinner — an elaborate Feast of the Seven Fishes — without wringing guilt and shame from her children. Her inability to host offers a glimpse at what shaped the siblings and warped their relationships to cooking, but it’s also a razor-edged contrast to the cooks’ growing sense of hospitality as instinctual and deeply fulfilling.
Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) is crushed by her anxiety about the restaurant opening and herself as a leader. She worries about failure, but also about not having a financial stake in the business.
Despite all of that, she’s delighted and re-energized after making a simple omelet for Carmy’s woozy, hungry sister, Natalie (Abby Elliott). She tops it with chives and crushed potato chips, plating it beautifully on a tray, as if she were carrying it to her own mother on a holiday morning. As she stands behind Natalie, watching her eat, Sydney looks happier than she’s been in ages.
It’s a beautiful and agonizing scene that compounds the hospitality industry’s complications, and the ways a calling to it can both hurt and heal. Sure, Sydney deserves more than the pleasure of watching someone fill with happiness when they eat her food. But also, that pleasure is real and, sometimes, there isn’t anything else.