Warning: Mild spoilers follow for the second season of The Bear.
Anthony Bourdain first drew aside the curtains to the drama and beauty that existed in the kitchens of restaurants and dining halls.
The author of Kitchen Confidential—rest in peace, chef—aptly followed his precious title with a curt sub: “Adventures in the culinary underbelly.” And oh, how the cooks and chefs who knew personally what he was talking about nodded at the sage words of tell-all wisdom. At the same time, it lit mental bulbs in the folks in entertainment, who saw an opportunity to put all this high spectacle and self-contained world to, nowadays, the nearest streaming subscription.
If Bourdain pioneered the invitation to see the culinary carnival, then The Bear successfully ripped down the curtains. At many points during season one and season two, I got the distinct feeling that showrunner Christopher Storer, along with his cast and crew, was daring us to like his comedy series and really laugh at it.
The same way an affronted sideshow freak might ask “You like it, huh? You like it!”
Yes, this is a comedy
That comedy classification itself has, despite the show’s current contention for 13 Emmy nominations, caused confusion to many. Understandable. I mean, it plainly tackles many issues regarding mental health, substance abuse, family trauma, and the endless challenges of being in the hospitality service industry. All things that are hard to creatively make fun of, what with all the suffering they denote.
Season two picks up from the ashes of its first installment. Carmy, award-winning New York chef, and the ragtag crew inherited from his deceased brother have admitted defeat and have closed down "The Beef," his family’s shabby yet popular sandwich restaurant in Chicago. In its place, in the same location, a new fine dining establishment called "The Bear" would arise.
Plenty of time for high drama and an awful lot of things that may go wrong in simply setting up a restaurant. A clever way for the writers and producers to sustain the insanely stressful environment and pace from the first season.
The self-loathing chef
All eyes continue to be on Chef Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto himself, ably played by Jeremy Allen White. Clearly a self-loathing, neurotic hero from season one, a chip on his shoulder’s carved by a master chef's insulting knife to just the right trim, a dead brother haunting his nightmares and often sitting on the same injured shoulder.
White as Carmy is still so spot on that he might have come whole hog off of one of Bourdain’s pages: “You might get the impression from the specifics of my less than stellar career that all line cooks are whacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts and psychopaths. You wouldn't be too far off base.”
Now though, season two burdens and gifts him with a love interest. Childhood and neighborhood friend Claire (Molly Gordon) presents him with both a chance for redemption and a stellar opportunity to squander a genuine human connection.
Kitchenese, if you please
The performances of the rest of the actors, almost caricaturish in what Bourdain called “Kitchenese, the secret language of cooks,” got real-life chefs and line cooks' trauma centers triggered just by watching.
Just ask Chef Genevieve Yam, who was motivated to write a whole essay about how season one brought up her trauma from working at the Michelin-starred trenches.
Despite the deadline of opening The Bear in record time looming over them, what I love about season two is how it takes time to develop the characters with their own episodes, doing so with nuance and heart.
Grizzled line cooks Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) and Ebra (Edwin Lee Gibson) are sent to culinary school on the resto’s dime, much to the chagrin of the Berzatto’s Uncle Jimmy Cicero, who’s lending the Berzattos above $500,000 to sink or swim.
Over several episodes, one of these old cooks embraces the chance to get another hack at a better future while the other mentally flounders and then quits.
In episode seven, Ebon Moss-Bachareach’s unskilled never-do-well Richie is sent to an upscale fine dining restaurant for a week for a hardcore education on why the hospitality side of the business is crucial. The revelation he gains there comes at such a hard price but changes him so drastically it’s like watching divine-fueled catharsis.
A meditation on forks
“You ever think about purpose?” Richie asks Carmy in episode one as their future fine dining restaurant is in shambles, seeming like the task with all the physical grind and bureaucratic red tape makes it all impossible to accomplish. At the end of episode seven, seeing the extreme change in Richie gives us, viewers, just enough hope that this “thuggish assortment” may come through and deliver.
This theme about having just enough hope is also in episode four, when pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce) is sent to Denmark. At one of Chef Carmy’s old training grounds in Copenhagen, Marcus studies under Chef Luca, played by Will Poulter like a no-nonsense British chef who’d had one too many knavish scrapes back in the kingdom.
Speaking of celebrity cameos, Poulter is just one of many grade-A stars who add relish to an already tasty season. In episode six, we get a Berzatto flashback to a family holiday from five years ago that’s as high-stress as they come, with the return of John Bernthal as Mikey, the previous owner of The Beef, when he was still alive. Jamie Lee Curtis, Bob Odenkirk, and Sarah Paulson join our regular cast on this episode.
Bears on holiday
Despite being the most high-stress episode of the season, I like episode six the best. The sheer excellence of craft and pacing, from the production and writing down to the outstanding acting, made a Christmas dinner with the family feel like I was watching an action scene.
The intensity going from an ordinary Sunday drive to one that ends in a hundred-vehicle pile-up. Temperature and hostilities are ratcheted up by the minute, ping ponging from one actor to another as they’re seated at the Christmas Eve dinner table. I just couldn’t look away.
The comedy in The Bear is like anti-comedy. It’s a clown ordering you to tell him he's funny, cajoling everyone in the audience to throw eggs at his white face.
Love letter to Chicago food
Despite the taxing frisson of watching it, there are definite moments of beauty, especially while both Carmy and his equally neurotic yet magnificent sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) are trying to make their “chaos menu.”
In episode three, Sydney, stood up by Carmy for their field workshop, goes on a road trip on her own. She will look for inspiration from the cuisine-land of Chicago and the result is a love letter to the city, taken from how showrunner Chris Storer used to hang out in real life at his friend’s father’s Chicago resto Mr. Beef.
As Chef Sydney samples the many delights of the city’s thriving cuisine scene (she even pops in at Kasama, the Michelin-starred Pinoy resto in Chicago’s Ukraine Village district to have a chorizo burger) there’s a sense that this is what real chefs do when they’re seeking inspiration for their own menus.
This is the authentic “Kitchenese” language that Bourdain talked about. That shorthand argot is “instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever dunked french fries for a summer job or suffered under the despotic rule of a tyrannical chef or boobish owner.”
As the episodes progress and the deadline for opening night nears, Carmy undergoes the most change of all the characters. By the finale of episode 10, with how The Bear’s opening turns out, we finally understand what it is to be him, to live in his head.
How he’s inherited such crippling mental health issues and why he unconsciously seeks high-stress environments. Every creative will relate instantly to Chef Carmy’s fear and anxiety responses to success, suspecting retribution for any happiness earned.
“My brain does this weird thing where it just bypasses any sense of joy, it just like attaches itself to dread,” he tells Syndey when asked what it felt like when his resto earned a Michelin star. Definitely heard, chef.
Both seasons of The Bear are streaming on Disney+.