4.5 out of 5 stars

Christopher Storer’s saga of a restaurant family returns for one of the strongest second seasons in recent history. Only now The Bear is less concerned with the story and more with its character’s emotions and relationships.

The narrative may be basic, but the writing and acting are anything but. Talented young fine-dining chef Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) is giving his departed brother’s Italian beef joint, The Beef, a makeover, turning the struggling fast-food place into a fine dining establishment. The restaurant is drowning in debt, falling apart, but filled with a cast of colourful characters.

With The Original Beef closed to be transformed into The Bear, it gives us more time to let the characters breathe outside of their workplace. Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) and Ebraheim (Edwin Lee Gibson) are sidelined to attend a local culinary school, while Marcus is sent to Copenhagen to hone his pastry skills and Richie struggles to find his place in the family. Sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) is also left behind to handle Carmy and his temperamental family.

As Tina and Ebraheim are pushed to the back of the narrative, season 2 brings Carmy’s sister Natalie (Abby Elliott) to the forefront as she takes on the responsibility of helping run The Bear. The show received some criticism for not living up to its comedy billing (it was nominated in the comedy categories at the Emmys), but the scenes of the extended family trying to get the restaurant up to standards are genuinely hilarious. From trying to fix appliances, to battling authorities for the correct accreditations, and dealing with a dilapidated building, it’s almost a shame these hijinks aren’t explored further.

Season 1 of The Bear was a frantic struggle through just a few intense weeks at a Chicago establishment, but this season slows the pace down and encourages viewers to savour the subtleties of life. With the plot moved to the side, this allows The Bear to contemplate the quieter moments of life. Whole episodes are dedicated to what would be a small scene in any other show.

This new season is more focused on bottle episodes, lingering on smaller moments of the character’s life. For this reason, it can be difficult keeping up with the timelines (helpfully labelled as a countdown to the restaurant opening).

Marcus’ trip to Copenhagen is a series highlight, musing over life and family with guest star Will Poulter. Richie’s (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) trip to a fine dining restaurant to learn how they run their front-of-house is another masterclass in careful character development. His conversations about life and family with guest star Olivia Colman are almost life-affirming in their simplicity.

Sydney is allowed to develop out of the kitchen, researching dishes and trying to poach talent from the competition. Sydney’s research tour of Chicago’s dining scene in the third episode is a love letter to food from the luxurious pudding to the humble French fry. It’s beautiful to watch Adebiri’s soulful eyes create her signature dish in real time, inspired by Chicago’s varied culinary scene.

The centrepiece of the season is undoubtedly the sixth episode, “Fishes”, which goes back five years to the Christmas dinner which changed the dynamic of his whole family. The episode highlights what this show does best, the intimate portrayal of the clash of oversized personalities and brash egos. The compelling writing is overshadowed by the host of A-list appearances, including Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) as “Uncle” Lee, Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story) as Cousin Michelle, and John Mulaney as her husband, Stevie.

We also finally meet Carmy, Nat, and Mikey’s (Jon Bernthal) volatile mother Donna (Jamie Lee Curtis). Stuck in the kitchen during the dinner of seven fishes, Curtis delivers a career-best performance as a woman in the grip of mental illness. Her performance feels so much more than a glorified cameo, as Donna’s volatile temperament and desperation for affection set the whole tone for the Berzatto family.

Ultimately, The Bear is a show about family. It’s about the complications of working together as a family and how certain traumas will linger over the whole clan. The extended flashback episode is the perfect explanation for the Berzatto family dynamic.

The Bear is a refreshing mix of genres, but one it doesn’t juggle as well as the comedy and dramas is the romance. Carmy reconnects with an old crush, Claire (Molly Gordon), who gives him the stability he has struggled to find elsewhere. Sadly, Claire never gets the writing her character or the actress deserves and she’s lumped into the ‘woman who teaches a man how to feel’ role. You can’t help but wonder if the time spent on Claire and Carmy’s love affair could have been used better elsewhere.

The show is at its best when dwelling on the beauty of food and how cooking connects these misfits together. The cinematography is unlike anything currently on television. It takes care in the way it shoots the everyday. Patisserie is filmed and showcased like a beautiful sunset. Even someone peeling mushrooms is displayed with a tenderness that most love scenes don’t earn in modern TV. Heartbreaking musings about life and loss occur over hot stoves, proving that cooking is much more than making food. There’s no doubt it loves a contemplative montage, but when it’s shot so beautifully it’s hard to complain.

It would have been so easy for The Bear to recreate the highs of the first season…. but, it instead reinvents itself and ascends to new heights. It also would also have been easy to fall into satire and mock the world of fine dining and those who have a passion for cooking… but, it instead celebrates the creativity of fine dining chefs and romanticises the plating of good food.

USA | 2023 | 10 EPISODES | 16:9 HD | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writers: Christopher Storer, Joanna Calo, Karen Joseph Adcock, Catherine Shetina, Stacy Osei-Kuffour, Sofya Levitsky-Weitz, Alex Russell, Rene Guve & Kelly Galuska.
directors: Christopher Storer, Joanna Calo & Ramy Youssef.
starring: Jeremy Allen White, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Ayo Edebiri, Lionel Boyce, Liza Colón-Zayas, Abby Elliott & Matty Matheson.