To call the first season of The Bear the surprise hit of 2022 is an understatement. It came out of nowhere and was everywhere; the (kitchen) knife edge drama about a restaurant hurtling towards, well, multiple crises at once – there’s a suicide, massive debts, new owners and a hairpin turn towards a new approach to cooking, and that’s just episode one – rapidly became the tastemakers choice for best drama of the year.
Now it’s back (well, it’s been back for a month or so in the US; for some reason the rest of the world has had to wait), and there’s a lot to live up to. The series wasn’t even renewed in the US until after the first season was out and a hit (13 Emmy nominations! Though why it’s in the comedy category beyond the half-hour format is something of a mystery). That means the creators have had time to see what works – and to take the calls of the many, many big names wanting to get a piece of the action. Where now for the Original Beef of Chicagoland?
Catch me up
The first season ended with Carmen (Jeremy Allen White), award-winning New York chef back running his family’s shabby sandwich restaurant, putting up a sign announcing that the Beef was closing, and a new fine dining establishment called the Bear was coming. Coupled with a surprise discovery that seemingly put their endless money woes behind them, it seemed like a new day was dawning for the ramshackle crew.
Obviously there’s no fun in that, so the new season starts almost immediately afterwards with the same old problems rapidly reasserting themselves. For one, a new restaurant means renovating the old space, and anyone who’s ever watched a home renovation show knows how smoothly that goes.
Plus it turns out that all the tomato money still isn’t enough to turn things around, so it’s back to Cicero (Oliver Platt) for another loan, and when Carmen opens his big mouth a little too wide, this one comes with a firm 18 month deadline: if they don’t pay it back in time, the building is Cicero’s to do with as he likes.
When Carmen, co-owner Sugar (Abby Elliot) and sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) do the math, it turns out the deal is all but impossible – unless, of course, the new restaurant is a massive hit from the second they open the doors. Stakes established, let’s go!
Much of the fun of the first season (well, maybe ‘fun’ isn’t quite the word) came from the backstage look at the high-pressure world of professional cooking. Everything that could go wrong, did. Bad food, bad deliveries, bad reviews, staff going their own way, personal pressures, family guilt – lots of that – screaming matches, crazy customers; it all built up to a storm it was exciting to be in the heart of. From the outside.
The second season doesn’t quite bring the magic all the way back, but after that amazing first season almost anything would have felt like a letdown. Just because a little air has been let out of the balloon doesn’t mean the whole thing comes crashing down – far from it. But this season does expand things a little, and that pressure cooker vibe that felt so essential has vented a little steam.
Now Carmen has a love interest, in the form of Claire (Molly Gordon). Sydney has issues with her father, while somehow having to make sure The Bear earns a Michelin Star. People are pregnant, or angry, or learning new cooking skills – which also means learning there’s a world outside Carmen’s vision – and the clock is always ticking.
Yet the series also takes time to move outside of the Beef / Bear. Marcus (Lionel Boyce) heads overseas to hone his pastry skills. There’s a gruelling hour-long flashback episode halfway through full of guest stars (Bob Odenkirk! Jamie Lee-Curtis! Jon Bernthal is back!) that is the kind of thing that automatically goes onto years-end best-of lists, and if that’s a problem it’s a very good problem to have.
And while everyone else seems on the way up, Carmen is still struggling, which is bad for him but good for the show (and for fans of shouting). It’s just that, judged entirely by its own high standards, this season the relentless drive is just a little less relentless, the constant pressure not quite as constant.
At least the food always looks amazing. If you’re on any kind of diet, this is not the show for you.
All ten episodes of The Bear Season 2are now available on Disney+.