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Someone’s in the Kitchen with Angina: “The Bear” Season 2 reviewed

In its first season, FX restaurant drama The Bear was about inheritance, avoidance, and grief. Its center was Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), and its overwhelming mood was Carmy’s sensation of standing in quicksand. Doing nothing with his dead brother’s struggling Chicago sandwich joint meant a slow downward slide toward bankruptcy and failure, but trying to escape only seemed to make the whole project sink faster. Season two, to its great credit, becomes a different kind of show — a season with its own set of questions and preoccupations. It’s still a series about inheritance, ambition, and how a history of family pain can turn those two things into competing forces. But it’s a notch lighter than it was before — just a touch more hopeful while introducing new areas of tension via inescapable relationship cycles and the costs of an all-consuming career.

The Bear’s ten-episode second season relies on one of TV’s best, most underused story arcs: a bunch of caring, flawed people who come together to build something they all love. It’s a little bit Halt and Catch Fire in that respect and a little bit Ramy (an earlier show from creator Christopher Storer) in its mix of darkness and light and the way it deploys self-contained episodic ideas. At times, it even has a “late ’80s drama” vibe with sexy, blue-hued montages and unapologetically on-the-nose musical cues. Altogether, this season is bigger and looser than the first, and inevitably, The Bear loses some of the taut, unrelenting rhythms that fueled its first season’s heady, nearly painful intensity. But that marginal loss is more than offset by other gains. Season two is more tender and wrenching, and its world has gotten bigger without diluting The Bear’s characteristic sense of intimacy.

The smartest thing Storer and his writers’ room do is lean heavily on their ensemble cast, handing multiple episodes over to a single character. The fourth, for instance, is a gorgeous departure episode focused on the restaurant’s pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce), which lets him grow as an individual before the season brings that richness back to the restaurant’s messy, ever-fraught group dynamic. Marcus, Natalie (Abby Elliott), Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas), Ebraheim (Edwin Lee Gibson), and Neil Fak (Matty Matheson) all return — many with notably expanded roles — and that increased sense of density gives The Bear more weight. Molly Gordon joins the cast as Carmy’s former school crush, powering the season’s romantic-drama impulses as a more than adequate match for White’s long, meaningful staring skills.

In general, the season spends less time on the claustrophobia of Carmy’s anxieties and grief, but that only means that when those elements do come back to the forefront, they’re compounded by how much time has been invested in other characters and how much everyone needs this new restaurant to work. It would be easy for a show with The Bear’s premise to either double down on the first season’s futile mire of restaurant doom or swing the pendulum in the other direction, landing on a warm community embrace of this beloved, reinvented local spot. The Bear chooses both at the same time and insists that they are inextricable thematic partners. The restaurant is a curse, the Berzatto family is a curse, and this new venture could be a beautiful beginning that turns around everything. Or it could succeed and destroy Carmy’s life in the process. Or it could crash and burn, but then Carmy could finally be free. All of these routes seem possible, and much of the season’s outcome rests on the tenuous working partnership between Carmy and Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), which could become a flourishing creative wellspring or blow up in their faces. This emotional uncertainty counteracts the arc’s built-in inevitabilities — it’s not hard to predict which obstacles will arise and which elements will succeed or fail. Mostly, though, these details are beside the point, because so much of the tension has been displaced onto how the milestones will play out within the restaurant’s fragile interpersonal ecosystem.

The sole distracting element in The Bear’s second season is the consciousness of its meta-narrative, which plays out largely through a sudden, sharp uptick in flagrant displays of TV heft. The first season was an increasingly improbable come-from-nowhere success, and its well-earned reputation has obviously translated into new frontiers of budget and booking. It’s impossible to begrudge the show its new scope, given how thoughtful it is in retaining elements of the first season and expanding in well-considered ways. If The Bear’s first-season success helped guarantee something as lovely as Marcus’s breakout journey (or some later moves I’m embargoed from detailing), it’s a strong argument for exactly what should happen when a series demonstrates its surprise popularity.

But season two’s roster of guest stars is where that surprise-hit status reaches the point of almost too much. Many of them are excellent. Some perhaps go too big. In bulk, though, their presence makes The Bear feel like an undiscovered neighborhood gem that suddenly got huge, and now its quiet little tables are full of celebrities thronging to be seen (and win guest-starring Emmy roles). If The Bear is about the pragmatic realities of attempting to create art inside late capitalism’s suffocating disregard for artistry, all of those guest roles are a reminder of the way the world creeps in — sometimes to a project’s benefit and sometimes just because it can’t be kept at bay.

It’s a particularly palpable undercurrent for a piece of TV released now — amid a weeks-long writers strike with no end in sight. Early in the strike, an anecdote from a writer for The Bear’s first season went viral: He made so little money that he had a negative balance on his bank account when he attended the WGA Awards ceremony where the series won Best Comedy. The two arcs look remarkably alike: The Bear is a show built by people who care deeply about making great TV and can barely afford to do it about a restaurant full of people who care deeply about making a great restaurant are are perpetually on the brink of financial collapse no matter how great the food may be. The Bear season two is great — often better, richer, and more satisfying than its first — and TV viewers are fortunate to have it. But this season is a depiction of what that greatness can cost, and it remains an open question whether the greatness is worth it for the people who make the show.

Meanwhile, the series takes advantage of its more condensed focus to flesh out the ensemble around Carmy and Syd. Natalie (Abby Elliott), barely an afterthought in season one, gets a big screentime bump in season two as the de facto operations manager. (She also gets a literal big bump, in the form of a pregnancy that brings up all sorts of complicated feelings about her family.) Hair-trigger Richie gets to display a softer side. One episode centers almost exclusively on Marcus (Lionel Boyce) as he meets with a Copenhagen chef (Will Poulter, one of many big-name guest stars this season) to learn advanced dessert-making techniques and muse on what it feels like to be the Scottie Pippen of the kitchen instead of the Michael Jordan.

By contrast, Carmy’s individual arc, centered around a flirtation with a childhood friend (Molly Gordon), is among the season’s weakest. Perhaps it’s because The Bear has never really been a love story in that sense. Its sense of romance is directed toward the characters’ passion for their work, and its most palpable chemistry is rooted in the bonds between colleagues who’ve worked elbow to elbow. Season two’s most heartwarming show of devotion comes not in the form of a kiss between lovers but in a heart-to-heart between two platonic colleagues, trading compliments and reassurances in the golden afternoon sun.

If the first season saw Carmy and Syd being tossed into the deep end to sink or swim, the second allows them more space to fret about what it means to provide amusement or pleasure, to wonder where inspiration comes from, to stress about living up to their own expectations or others’. Sometimes, excellence under pressure just begets more pressure. Asked what it felt like to earn a Michelin star at his old job, Carmy’s response is not exactly inspiring. “First 10 seconds felt like a sort of panic because I knew I just had to keep them, had to retain ’em. My brain does this weird thing where it just bypasses any sense of joy, it just like attaches itself to dread,” he recalls. “After those ten seconds, I had to turn over a really slow table because the entire United Nations security council was coming in.”

Show wants to be gritty but it turns its head away from the hard parts of life – it luxuriates and exploits the suffering of the working class to make viewers feel good about watching their success; these things are unearned.