In a week where we’re caught between the saccharine, pastel world of Barbie and the sobering, ethical dilemmas of Oppenheimer, allow me to offer a palate-cleanser. Full disclosure, although it may not feel any less stressful than the life-threatening atomic bomb, or any less searching than the identity crisis that’s befallen sentient dolls, it’s just as tantalising. May I present the high-stakes, intense world of fine dining, dysfunctional family relationships, and compelling backstories of The Bear.
The Bear tells the story of world-class chef-de-cuisine Carmen Berzatto’s (Jeremy Allen White) transposition from the precise world of upstate New York dining to his family’s failing Chicago sandwich joint, where it feels like he’s been blanched like one of his delicacies. Struggling to keep the business afloat after his old brother’s suicide, he strives to motivate his crew and transform the restaurant while dealing with his own unresolved mental health issues. With the help of young, talented, if impatient, Sydney (Ayo Edebiri); his rough-around-the-edges, family friend Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach); and a cast of unique characters, Carmy sees the whole crew transform into people who really care about their art and look out for each other.
Series 2 has just come out in the UK (you can catch it on Disney+) and there’s real development following the characters established in the first season. Resuming from a fever-pitch twist at the end of the first series, the staff are on their way to opening a brand new restaurant. This time, creator Christopher Storer and his team of writers aren’t afraid to go darker and grittier than the first series, to expand characters’ families and worlds, to challenge them, and to focus on using a really intense series of close-ups that allow us to scrutinise every action, every movement, and every bit of eye contact. It’s immersive writing that delivers a thrilling show. This series isn’t afraid to ask the big questions, explore one’s purpose, and find your passion.
Note: this review contains mild spoilers for The Bear: Series Two.
The Bear: Series 2
Director: Christopher Storer
Release date: July 2023 (US and UK)
After a critically-acclaimed first series that inspired affectionate parodies and shouts of ‘corner!’ and ‘yes, chef!’ in kitchens across America, the second series of The Bear doesn’t disappoint. Moving from the failing but much-loved family shop The Beef of Chicagoland, series two sees the restaurant crew – Carmy, Syd, Richie, Natalie, Marcus, Tina, Neil, Ebra, and others – band together to scrape up enough money to reopen the place as a face-lifted, destination dining spot. While the ride doesn’t promise to be easy, the stories are told with so much warmth and pathos amid the chaos that you can’t help but feel gripped.
The Bear is no doubt finessed and improved by its writers’ attention to detail. Creator Christopher Storer’s passion for every element of this project is clear, and it’s so well-cast that it’s easy to forget that we’re watching a series. This is aided in part because Storer’s sister Courtney is a real-life chef and the culinary producer for the show. It became a setup so real, in fact, that the stars reported their stress while filming, and have even been approached by chefs about the technicalities of their dishes when dining out.
So, as well as the cast, what gives the second series the right to be this compelling? Well, it’s a combination of great writing and the natural rhythms that actors fall into with the space around them. If the series gets off to a sluggish start, the stilted dialogue soon regains its usual rhythm. Whereas beforehand the series opened with Sufjan Stevens’ homage to Chicago, we now lead with Bruce Hornsby’s 1988 ballad ‘The Show Goes On’, giving it a distinctly anachronistic vibe. Paired with the wide-angle landscapes, it feels like an opener to a high-powered 80s drama.
Despite the show existing firmly in the present day (at the start of series 1, Richie asks ‘How do you think we got through Covid?’), it could easily have taken place 20 or 30 years previously. There is a stellar soundtrack including songs from The Psychedelic Furs, Atticus Ross, and Trent Reznor – together, they all create an immersive dreamscape that really helps capture the shifting mood of the story.
Carmy is arguably New York City’s greatest chef, yet his unresolved PTSD from his high-stakes job has left him grappling with the concept of happiness and worth, to the extent that he needs to look up the definition of ‘fun’ just to prove that he needs no excitement or enjoyment in his life. The reasons for this are partially due to his problematic family background (alcoholic mother, addicted brother), but the consequences can be devastating. The moral of this story is that no matter how excellent Carmy is on his own – no matter how world-renowned – he still can’t do it all alone. He needs the team.
This season, the writers also introduce Claire (Molly Gordon), Carmy’s childhood friend, as a love interest. We’re introduced to her by way of backstory, when Carmy’s older brother Mikey and Richie try to set him up with Claire five years earlier, and Carmy panics. In the first series he confesses to an AA group that he was always so career-driven and shy as a person that he never had girlfriends – but by introducing Claire to the plot, the writers create a feasible way for him to make a connection with someone.
But as much as we want the couple to work out, there are underlying issues that seem to always get in the way. Their initial meeting is hopeful but one-sided and sets the tone for so much of the rest of their relationship. The real question is what Carmy values more – the love and attention of people in his life or the neurotic and unforgiving environment of the restaurant where he can prove his talent and worth. While the early stages of their relationship play out quietly and slowly, there’s a sense of foreboding that we as the viewers, and therefore Carmy, can’t quite shake: as if it’s all a little too good to be true.
Attached to Carmy platonically, but perhaps just as intently, is Syd. She really fights to get the restaurant up and running. Leaving a trail of failed culinary endeavours in her wake, she’s well aware that she’s prone to expecting too much and crashing and burning as a result. Hence her want, or need, for their restaurant, The Bear, to succeed. Buoyed by her supportive and well-meaning father, she’s always afraid that she’ll fail, yet won’t stop pursuing her dream, for better or worse. She’s always dreaming about creating the next dish – her daydreams to the soundtrack of ‘Future Perfect’ by The Durutti Column are nothing short of inspired – and she is the one who isn’t afraid to call out Carmy when he’s distracted or acting unfairly. By holding him accountable, she brings him back down to earth and helps him from spiralling out of control.
There’s a quiet moment between the two of them in the penultimate episode, where they fix a table together and talk about what they’re hoping for and afraid of in the restaurant. It’s one of the most memorable scenes in the series and absolutely deserves a rewatch. In another scene, Carmy learns to better communicate with Syd by teaching her sign language for ‘I’m sorry’. This becomes a recurring motif between the two of them and shows how they develop trust.
Richie’s (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) character arc has to be the best one of the series – except perhaps that of Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas), who goes from a feisty kitchen matriarch to a top-class culinary student and sous-chef to Syd. Richie’s hard edges have always been a defence against a series of sobering circumstances in his life (the death of his best friend, a painful divorce), but the start of the series finds him examining his role in all this (“Cousin,” he asks Carmy, “do you ever think about ‘purpose’?”) and then finding out what he can bring to the table…figuratively and literally.
His stint in one of Chicago’s best-rated restaurants truly opens his eyes to how important the experience of serving and bringing joy to others can be. He emerges a transformed, suit-wearing aficionado, with an uplifting scene seeing him drive through the early-morning streets with Taylor Swift’s ‘Love Story’ on at full blast as he recognises the joy of being alive. What a character, what an arc, what a transformation. I absolutely loved it.
The Taylor Swift reference also hails back to his ex-wife Tiff and their daughter Eva’s love of Taylor Swift. (In an earlier episode, pre-divorce, Tiff is wearing a 1989 sweatshirt. And when, in episode 2, he tells Eva ‘I loved Taylor Swift too, I just needed a break’, it’s like he didn’t want to listen to music that reminded him of his family. There are so many details that become apparent on a rewatch.) The music is just another way to link Richie to something that he loves, except this time he’s loving life itself, having found his purpose, and has learned to respect himself, too.
Nat’s, or Sugar’s (Abby Elliott) role really deepens in this series, especially in the hour-long episode ‘Fishes’, so-named after the Feast of the Seven Fishes, which celebrates the legacy of Italian/Sicilian immigrants to the US, in this family who retains their strong ancestry. We see her amid a family Christmas five years earlier, with increasingly chaotic events unfolding and family tensions coming to a head. Unfortunately, it’s not just the effect of Yuletide overindulgence: rumblings of discontent start to escalate into something more sinister, and the truth of how truly dysfunctional this family is. The hysteria points to real, underlying issues that have gone unaddressed for too long, finally boiling over. It’s not an easy episode to watch!
Yet it is easy to draw comparisons between the family and the food they are so attached to and which is such a focal point of their lives. Nat, in the centre, is trying to maintain the peace, but her attempts to placate her mother only backfire. Shots in this episode are filmed at such close proximity, and with so little background, that characters often appear to exist in isolation. Cuts between shots are used sparingly, and in the final, quietly devastating scene, Nat is back-lit like a saint, witnessing the chaos around her.
Back in the present day, notwithstanding her past family trauma, Nat’s role in the new restaurant is one of project manager, peacekeeper, and sanity-preserver. So highly is she regarded by the crew that one of volatile Richie and hapless Neil’s (YouTube chef Matty Matheson) spats result in Neil pulling a figurative red card and calling Nat – “You called Mom?!” Richie demands, deflated. As if running a highly risky enterprise wasn’t enough, Nat is also grappling with the perfect timing of her first pregnancy, and it takes all she can muster to keep the restaurant, her crew, her marriage, and herself afloat. It’s humbling to see her take on so much and keep such a level head, all played brilliantly by Elliott.
One thing I enjoyed about this series was a bit more development around Nat’s husband, Pete (Chris Witaske). Although he appears universally disliked by the family, he turns out to be just a big softie – perhaps naive to the others’ hardened ways, but charming because of his kind manner and willingness to look for the best in everyone. He’s a character I’d welcome seeing more of, though the filmmakers, like good chefs, decided to save the best ingredient til last and introduced his surprising depth at the very end of the final episode.
There’s a surprisingly rich selection of cameos in this series, but chief among them are Sarah Paulson, John Mulaney, Olivia Colman’s Chef Terry, and Will Poulter’s Chef Luca, who turns Marcus’ (Lionel Boyce) bleak foray to Amsterdam into an enlightening experience and who really distils the importance of showing care and dedication to the craft. It’s also telling, in such close proximity and with such a laser-focus on creating the best food, that Luca and Marcus really bond and share stories about their lives.
There are so many details I wish I had time to explore in depth – but like a good nine-course tasting menu on the opening night of a new restaurant, The Bear is designed to be crazy and overwhelming. It’s a highly stressful watch, and you’ll feel your blood pressure rising from the moment you hear Bruce Hornsby’s chords in the opening sequence. But on the whole, The Bear season 2 tells a selection of really compelling and gripping stories that culminate when the characters face their own crises and (in some cases but not all), resolutions. At this point though, I’m not even sure I’d want a third series. It’s more than satisfying as it is. I’ve found the series surprisingly affecting, and you’ll find yourself thinking about the story long after the credits have finished rolling.