The Bear loves a montage. In its excellent second season, the FX and Hulu series sets aside some time at least once per episode to show viewers – in quick cuts and loving, lingering shots alike – the joy of cooking. This time around, it’s not just the making and eating of food that catches the camera’s eye, but all kinds of labors of love. We see montages of cleaning, organizing, building, buying, and even healing. The shots of hands hard at work feel like a balm on our souls between moments of chaos, and it’s clear that they are for the characters that populate The Bear as well. This exquisitely shot and acted series isn’t just one of the best shows ever made about the art of cooking – it’s also one of the best shows about the art of emotional regulation because cooking here is meditation. Our heroes calm themselves down one slice and sear at a time.
There’s a lot the staff of the restaurant formerly known as The Beef needs to remain calm about in the show’s 10-episode sophomore season. The show’s anxious scream of a first season ended with former Michelin-star chef Carmy (Jeremy Allen White), his sous chef turned business partner Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), his “cousin” Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), and the rest of the restaurant staff uncovering a secret stash of money left behind by Carmy’s brother Mikey (Jon Bernthal), whose recent suicide underscores the emotional intensity of the entire series. Now, Carmy and Sydney are back in business along with Carmy’s sister Sugar (Abby Elliott, the season’s stealth MVP), and the roof is quite literally falling around them. The Beef, it turns out, is a death trap, and turning it into a fine dining experience will take more than some tomato-covered wads of cash.
Much of season 2 of the series follows the staff as they attempt to launch the new restaurant, The Bear, by speedrunning a timeline involving repairs, remodels, new recipes, new staff, and lots and lots of permits. People gripe that The Bear is considered a comedy, but season 2 mines plenty of genuine humor from the endless bureaucracy standing between this ragtag crew and their dreams. The season sometimes verges on slapstick, with “cousin” Neil (Matty Matheson) zapping himself with loose wiring, Sugar wrestling with a clogged toilet, and Sydney pulling faces when recipes go wrong. The season finale, a beautiful culmination of a thoughtful, revelatory season, hinges around one silly mistake, the kind of perfect disaster that would only happen during the highest stakes of situations.
In season 2, The Bear can sometimes feel like it’s stretching its underdog spirit beyond its breaking point, piling on problem after problem in a way that feels purposely fatalistic. If Mikey’s spirit looms large, the fact that any of these intense, emotionally unstable people could just as easily lose all hope looms just as large. At one point, Carmy tells a therapy group that he’s always waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it’s not just a pair. “There’s always another shoe,” he says, White employing his perfectly practiced stare into the void. Yet if season 2 lets its characters get more down on themselves than ever, it also lifts them up in surprisingly touching ways.
The show’s relationship to ambition initially seemed to be in line with something Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash – a path to perfection riddled by bloody knuckles and ruined relationships – but for the most part, season 2 rejects that oversimplification. Characters muse about success, purpose, and talent, but they also find fulfillment outside The Bear, whether they’re singing karaoke, making breakfast for a friend, or, in Carmy’s case, reconnecting with an old flame (Molly Gordon). Two of the most brilliant episodes of the season follow key supporting characters as they observe the wisdom of other culinary institutions, and well-cast guest stars make the scenes feel like lessons, not in business acumen or chef skills, but in life itself. Ramy Youssef directs the show’s mesmerizing fourth episode, which sees pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce) train under an assured, precise chef in Copenhagen, played by Will Poulter. Chef Luca tells Marcus that when he realized he didn’t have to be the best, he got even better because he didn’t feel the pressure to be number one anymore.
The beauty of The Bear is that it doesn’t seem to hold any one truth too tightly. The conversations characters have with chefs, family members, coworkers, and more at times call to mind the globetrotting work of the late, great Anthony Bourdain, whose photo appears in the first seconds of the season premiere. Bourdain often treated the stories of the chefs, locals, and food lovers he met as equal in their wisdom; each new philosophy was added to the ever-changing recipe that helped his docuseries go beyond our expectations for what a show about food can be. The Bear does the same, finding profundity in Taylor Swift songs and forks, in the wisdom of prickly uncles and put-upon girlfriends, and in the simple act of making an omelet or fixing a table.
The show might offer up plenty of sumptuous food porn and naked emotional truth, but it’s not perfect. The season suffers from an overabundance of cameos, as celebrities trickle in before suddenly overwhelming the show’s sense of realism in a special episode featuring a stunt casting gambit that doesn’t quite work. It’s possible to watch the season’s centerpiece flashback episode and suspend your disbelief at the appearance of a small army of talented, award-winning actors, but just barely. The show’s writing is good enough to make most additions work, but some guest stars melt into the fabric of the series more easily than others. These aren’t bit parts, though: The Bear uses these A-listers to tell a painful, anxiety-inducing story about family dysfunction and mental illness that’s ultimately on par with the tension levels of last season’s oner episode.
Overall, though, The Bear season 2 mostly brings the show’s sometimes harrowing intensity down to a steady boil. Despite the grand opening calendar that sits in the restaurant like a doomsday clock ticking down to midnight, the show is now as concerned with love, affirmation, and passion as it is with actual success. Ironically, it’s that spirit that makes The Bear, a beautifully acted and shot show that would be nothing without its big, thumping heart, such a rousing success itself.
The Bear season 2 is now streaming in its entirety on Hulu. Watch the season 2 trailer here.