This review contains details about the second half of Season 2 that may be viewed as spoilers.
Like the first season of "The Bear" introduced us to the sex appeal of kitchen slang, the second acquaints us with the chaos menu. In the way of all skilled storytelling, nobody stops to explain what it is, preferring to let us derive its meaning from context. As restaurant partners Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) and Sydney Adamu (Ayo Edebiri) blue sky concepts for their soon-to-open restaurant's menu, each suggests pairings of mains and accompaniments that defy convention.
Then the term is invoked, either to question the overall direction of their offerings or as a gentle warning against losing focus. Each time Carmy refutes that insinuation — his concepts have a story and a reason, and every technique that guides them into place is the result of methodical mastery.
The same high level of execution is at work in Season 2, steered with perfection by series creator Christopher Storer and co-showrunner Joanna Calo. Where the introductory plot seized our attention by combining explosive realism and concentrated feeling, the second invites us to sit with the soul of this heroically grubby Chicago spot and understand its people.
That doesn't only mean Carmy, Sydney, Cousin Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), Marcus (Lionel Boyce), Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) and Fak (Matty Matheson), although the character development devoted to each of what was once The Beef's crew makes the operatic climax of these episodes resonate like little else.
In these new episodes they're leaving all of that behind, including the simple sandwich menu, to shoot for a Michelin star. Now that the crew gets why order is essential to an efficiently run kitchen, the next step is to embrace focus. That, along with demolishing the decaying structure and rebuilding the place from the studs up, salvaging whatever they can from The Original Beef and throwing out the waste to fling the doors open on The Bear – all in under 12 weeks and without enough money. The chaos menu, then, is literal and metaphorical.
Without invoking the "B" word, "The Bear" is stepping into the hole left by "Ted Lasso."
Shows that illustrate the artistic process as a natural extension of a person are uncommon. I suspect that is related to our culture's dismissive view of creativity that isn't related to fame or profit. This is not to say that Carmy's quest to evolve what was once a hole-in-the-wall into a transcendent experience is purely for the joy of it; there is a clock ticking on the new restaurant's ability to turn a sufficient profit, imposed by the shady businessman of the Berzatto clan Uncle Jimmy (Oliver Platt).
But what separates Carmy, Syd and the rest from other two-dimensional TV artists is their loving dedication to this work as a calling. This evolves "The Bear" from a character-driven drama masquerading as a comedy into a philosophical journey toward purpose.
Jeremy Allen White as Carmen "Carmy" Berzatto in "The Bear" (Chuck Hodes/FX)
Season 2 makes us comprehend what it takes to not merely hack the restaurant game but to love it enough to give all they have, wringing every drop of creativity onto a plate. As it builds that argument spoonful by spoonful it never forgets that this kitchen team striving to become an optimized machine began as a pile of parts stirred up by the suicide of Carmy's brother Michael (Jon Bernthal).
Carmy's motivation is personal since running a restaurant with Mikey was his ultimate dream. As he sorts through the decay hidden in the walls and crunches the numbers, he accepts that he can't do it alone. But success doesn't merely rely on muscles and hands and favors to secure permits, repair The Beef's faulty innards and help the place pass all the various inspections in record time. It also requires persuading his brother's old team to want this dream as badly as he does.
There are many more reasons to abandon this rebuild than stick with it. But as Sydney tells her father (tenderly played by Robert Townsend), "Why can't we put everything that we have into everything that we can?"
Without invoking the "B" word, in this new season "The Bear" is stepping into the hole left by "Ted Lasso." That it does this without becoming cloying is miraculous. Credit the writing and consistent directing, with Storer directing seven of the 10 new episodes and Calo helming two. (Ramy Youssef guides the remaining half-hour and one of the season's best: the dreamy "Honeydew," depicting Marcus' instructive baking expedition, one further enriched by Will Poulter's meditative guest star turn.)
"Why can't we put everything that we have into everything that we can?" says Sydney
But the performances are the binding agent holding it all together, especially in this go-round. Abby Elliott's expanded screentime as Carmy's sister Natalie grounds his pressured aspirations, moving her from the boundaries into the thick of the mess. The new season also fleshes out Tina, capitalizing on the nuanced tones Colón-Zayas uses to color a personality far more expansive than a hard exterior and roughhousing humor.
Liza Colón-Zayas as Tina and Edwin Lee Gibson as Ebraheim in "The Bear" (Chuck Hodes/FX)
And if Edebiri stole the first season by establishing Sydney's drive, optimism and anxiety, Richie's odyssey allows Moss-Bachrach to transform his Cousin from a hotheaded goon into someone greater than anyone could have pictured a year ago.
White remains the story's emotional anchor, wearing the hell out of that blank canvas of an expression that subtly masks anxiety and anger, in one moment and a sense of inquisition in the next.
But with a season expanded from eight episodes to 10, nearly everyone surrounding Carmy and Syd receives their time to shine.
From Syd psyching herself up to become head chef by reading Duke University's coach Mike Krzyzewski's "Leading with the Heart" to Tina and Ebraheim's (Edwin Lee Gibson) training at a local culinary school, every subplot mindfully invests in the entire ensemble. This also makes the risk bigger than one man's dream. Everyone is putting something on the line or sacrificing precious time they can never get back for this shot, in a financial climate that's been hardest on restaurateurs.
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In this way "The Bear" expands its field of vision beyond the restaurant's walls and Chicago's city limits, making us fall more in love with its family and friends, their talent and, yes, the food. Culinary porn is a reliably potent visual employed sparingly in a first season that preferred to gaze at the mess Carmy inherited, but it assumes central placement as Syd, Carmy and the rest open their senses to what's possible, further elevating these new episodes.
Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Ricard "Richie" Jerimovich in "The Bear" (Chuck Hodes/FX)
As rare as compelling fictional considerations of art are TV shows that use their running time wisely without abusing their audience's attention. "The Bear" was and is made to be consumed, although Season 2 invites a slower digestion than the first season's bingeable urgency. About half of the episodes clock in around 30 minutes with the foundational sixth episode, "Fishes," clocking in at 66.
Any other comedy would net complaints about doubling the established episodic runtime. But in keeping with the season's motto, every second counts in that installment and its importance to the overall story put it over the top as one of the series' best.
It also encourages a pause either before viewing it or afterward, which is wise. Tempting as it may be to wolf down these episodes in a single sitting, trust us. This "thoughtful chaos menu" is best savored in bites, and over all too soon anyway, leaving us starved for more.
Season 2 of FX's "The Bear" streams Thursday, June 22 on Hulu.
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