Review: ‘The Bear’ Season 2 Changes Courses

This review discusses plot points throughout Season 2 of FX’s “The Bear,” now airing in full on Hulu.

Last year, I described Season 1 of “The Bear” as “a war story that happens to take place in a kitchen.” Every cooking scene in its Chicago restaurant was a chaotic D-Day of screams, confusion, clanging metal and gouts of flame.

In Season 2, some things remain the same: The kitchen language (“Corner!” “Hands!” “Yes, Chef!”), the toothsome shots of food, the dad-rock soundtrack. (R.E.M.’s “Strange Currencies” is deployed aggressively.) But “The Bear” is no longer a war story that takes place in a kitchen. It is now a sports story that takes place in a kitchen.

I say that not just because the book “Leading with the Heart” by the basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski has a surprisingly totemic role. Where the first season focused on Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), an elite chef struggling to save and remake a family business after the suicide of his brother, Michael (Jon Bernthal), Season 2 is, to its great betterment, about a team.

Like an old-school sports flick, it follows an underdog squad through a rebuilding season. The rebuilding here is literal: Turning the Beef, a neighborhood hot-sandwich joint, into the Bear, a high-end destination with Michelin-star ambitions, requires a gut renovation on an ulcer-making schedule. A nerve-racking show about cooking has become a nerve-racking show about construction.

And as in a great sports story, the season sends its key players on journeys of skill development and personal growth. There are struggles, doubts and training montages, all building toward a big game — the restaurant’s opening — in which they step up to the (in this case dinner) plate while the star is sidelined.

White still looms over the Season 2 promo art like Salt Bae, and Carmy remains central to the story, chugging Pepto-Bismol and trying to reconcile having a girlfriend (Molly Gordon) with his no-time-for-fun career. But by serving Carmy’s sleepy-eyed charisma in an appetizer portion, the creator, Christopher Storer, gives his cast room to grow and the story space to breathe.

In many ways, Season 2 is now the story of Carmy’s collaborator, Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), a quietly simmering worrywart who fears becoming a failure before her career has had a chance to start. She also dreads the judgment of her father (Robert Townsend), who, Carmy jokes, has a hard time being supportive because “he doesn’t understand that this job doesn’t pay much, it doesn’t amount to anything and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.” (There’s a great platonic intimacy to Carmy and Sydney’s creative relationship.)

“The Bear” is about the curse and blessing of having a calling. An early episode this season follows Sydney on a research tour across the city, ordering dishes, inspecting a beef carcass, hearing war stories about surviving in a low-margin business. Directed by the executive producer Joanna Calo, the episode uses editing cuts and luxurious images not simply as food porn but to visualize eating as a form of thinking, a way of bringing the world into you.

Another standout episode takes the pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce) to Copenhagen to apprentice at a don’t-call-it-Noma temple of precision cuisine. Still another follows the endearing screw-up Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) through a weeklong boot camp polishing forks and working the dining room at a three-star Chicago restaurant.

Both episodes have a kind of wax-on-wax-off philosophy of growth through repetition. Marcus learns that greatness in the kitchen is about not just skill but being open to experience. Richie learns that what seems like absurd meticulousness — no streaks on those forks! — is about respect for one’s diners and for one’s self.

“The Bear” could go the easy route of mocking pretentious tweezer food, but its tastes are more catholic. In Richie’s apprenticeship episode, an alert server overhears an out-of-towner who regrets visiting Chicago without trying deep-dish pizza. The kitchen sends Richie to run out for a Pequod’s takeout pie, which is then cut into rounds, upgraded with a basil gel and adorned with micro basil.

The dish is a hit. It’s also a fair metaphor for the “Bear” high-low aesthetic, which puts indie-film artistry on the same plate with slapstick sitcom tropes. (Carmy actually ends the season getting locked in a walk-in refrigerator, as if in an old episode of “Happy Days.”)

It’s an odd time to be making a season of TV extolling the ambitions and work ethic of high-end fine dining. The culinary world is still reckoning with revelations of sexual harassment and abuse, while the recently announced closure of Noma raised questions of whether its kind of exacting ambition (and reliance on volunteer labor) was sustainable.

In a way — to hit the sports metaphor one more time — “The Bear,” with its emphasis on teamwork and caring, is doing a version of what “Ted Lasso” did, albeit with less syrup and more acid. It suggests that there’s a better way of playing this game. You can win without being toxic; you can be a genius without being a jerk.

The show makes clear that this is not easy. The season closes with Carmy sabotaging his relationship, seeming to buy in to the myth that he needs to be unhappy to be a success. Sydney, in the face of all she’s seen, still wants to win the Bear a Michelin star, and Carmy warns her of the cost: “You’re going to have to care about everything more than anything.”

The business of feeding people eats people. “The Bear” has no illusions about that, but it is also unashamed to see a value in it. A great restaurant, it argues, is about care. Caring for the customer, making the guest feel cared for — characters talk about service like it’s a religious vocation. Sydney expresses this in action in a marvelous scene where she fixes an omelet for Carmy’s pregnant, queasy sister, Sugar (Abby Elliott), whisking the eggs through a sieve, sprinkling fine-cut chives, and showering the plate in crushed sour-cream-and-onion potato chips.

But there’s also taking care, learning discipline, doing things the hard way because it’s the right way. In his Danish sojourn, we watch Marcus try to scoop a perfect quenelle while his mentor tells him, over and over, that it’s not good enough. This kind of scrutiny can be abusive — we saw this in Season 1 flashbacks to Carmy being terrorized by a past boss (Joel McHale). But here it is simply firm and honest. Try again, try again. It’s unsparing, but it comes with the belief that you can do better because you are better.

“The Bear” is just earnest enough to believe that this can be transformative. It is with Richie, who in a week’s time goes from a divorced sad sack to a guy who wears suits and respects himself, from a loudmouth without skills to a front-of-the-house wizard who can read a stream of rapid-fire orders like the code of the Matrix.

Does it all happen implausibly fast? Absolutely. But it makes sense within the spirit of “The Bear,” which believes that everyone is a renovation project but that no one is irreparable.

Sometimes, though, the damage goes to the foundation. We see this in the season’s longest episode, a flashback set at an acrimonious Berzatto family celebration of the Italian American Christmastime tradition the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Insults are hurled, as are forks. A plate is smashed. Finally, Carmy’s mother, Donna (Jamie Lee Curtis), drunk and feeling unappreciated for preparing the elaborate piscine dinner, curses out her family and drives her car through the wall of the house. In the final moments, Carmy stares at a towering, incongruously festive platter of cannoli.

That pastry comes back later, as the Bear prepares to open. Marcus presents Carmy and Sydney with a new item for the menu: a savory cannoli, inspired by Carmy’s desire to “take back” the dish after the Christmas disaster ruined it for him. “This one is a little bit of all of us,” Marcus says. He calls it “The Michael.”

The restaurant opening plays out over the final two episodes, the kitchen team falling behind, then knocking it out of the park, like the Bad News Bears in chef’s whites. But the cannoli unveiling feels like the idea that the season was building toward.

Every experience you ingest, every memory, every hurt becomes part of you, like it or not. You are what you eat. You can internalize the bad stuff until it curdles in your gut and leaves you heaving in the back alley. Or you can externalize it into something new, maybe no longer sweet, but with tang and richness and umami depth. Leave the trauma. Take the cannoli.

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