Arts & Culture: Modern TV Gets a New Look: “The Bear” Season Two Review
“The Bear," created by Christopher Storrer and streaming on FX and Hulu, does not resemble most serious television that has premiered in the twenty years since “The Sopranos.” In the 21st century, television operates, for the most part, as the medium of seedy lifestyles and criminal antiheroes, of Don Draper and Walter White. It often seems that any highly acclaimed show must demonstrate a lack of morality, its artistic function to allow regular Americans, for an hour a week, to drop all normative ethical judgments and merely get lost in a (usually) brilliantly crafted and seductive narrative. However, “The Bear” subverts these conventions. There is no violent crime, it does not examine the lives of the super rich, and no one cheats on their spouse. When I think of “The Bear,” the terms that come to mind are service, sacrifice and family. Now, the show is not overtly, purposely saccharine à la “Ted Lasso.” It contains its fair share of pessimism, anxiety and shoddy ethical judgment. Yet “The Bear” always returns to a stable, moral base that resembles a shimmering glass of water in the relentlessly cynical desert that is the modern TV landscape.
For those uninitiated, “The Bear” follows world class chef Carmen (Carmy) Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White, who audiences will be seeing a lot more of in the future), and the staff of Chicago restaurant “The Beef” as they attempt to keep the restaurant alive following its owner, Carmy’s brother Mike’s, suicide. Season one focused on recovery, with the characters, especially Carmy, merely trying to keep the restaurant afloat financially and to stay afloat emotionally. However, the final episode’s revelation that Mike left hundreds of wads of cash in the restaurant’s tomato paste cans as a final gift provides an opportunity for renewal — to transform “The Beef” into a Michelin star restaurant, to “let it rip,” as Mike instructs Carmy in a posthumous letter. In Season Two, the show undergoes a considerable tonal shift and often leaves the claustrophobic kitchen confines that defined Season One, quite literally giving the character’s more space to breathe. The showrunners even go international — to Denmark, pastry capital of Europe — a shocking development considering their clear proclivity for Chicago, of which there are so many establishing shots it could be considered the show’s main character.
Besides experimenting with new settings, “The Bear” also makes Carmy, who dominated almost every frame in season one, take a back seat in season two. The show takes on an anthology-feel, with each character getting a greater chance to shine. Head chef Sydney (the outstanding, deadpan Ayo Edebiri, who is another rising star audiences will be seeing a lot more of), baker Marcus (Lionel Boyce), and deadbeat Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) each get a standalone episode. Carmy’s sister Sugar (Abby Elliot) joins the restaurant staff and struggles to cope with the added stress of her pregnancy. Tina (Lizo Colón-Zayas), a former line cook, grows into her own as a serious chef and leader. We get to see more of Jon Bernthal as Carmy’s late brother Mike and meet the wider Berzatto family, including Jamie Lee Curtis as the family’s neurotic, cry-bully matriarch, in a brilliant and anxiety-inducing flashback episode. At points, this new approach feels ponderous, and season two’s first five episodes often left me itching for the plot to move forward and yearning for season one’s constant intensity. However, the final five episodes are all masterpieces, perfectly melding the old with the new, the intense with the soft and tender.
Episode 7, “Forks,” is the most inspiring of these latter episodes and most exemplary of “The Bear’s” morality. It focuses on middle-aged, old-school loser Richie, who lives in the past and feels left behind as the restaurant he has worked at his entire adult life undergoes a radical change. Carmy, attempting to get Richie with the program, sends him to scrub forks at a world class restaurant in order to learn how service works at a place where “every day is the freaking super bowl.” While grumpy and indifferent initially, Richie eventually buys in. He learns how wearing a suit to work demonstrates respect for yourself and the people around you. He experiences how edifying properly peeling a mushroom could be, and how giving everything you have for another’s dining experience can be cleansing and transcendent. He recognizes that a life of world class service, where every second counts, is difficult and stressful, but it means something.
Richie’s transformation illustrates the central lesson “The Bear” wants to teach its audience. Watching the show, I would often get annoyed at the beautiful, yet seemingly endless establishing shots of Chicago, restaurant food and kitchen items that the showrunners insist on showing us. But what these shots do is establish in the audience a real, repeated connection to the show’s environment, inculcating the sensibility to texture and detail that world class chefs possess. “The Bear” wants you to feel how a perfectly sharpened knife, a well-shaped pan, an embroidered smock and a beautifully made omelet can give life purpose, sustain family, and show that you care about the world and people around you.
Now, such meticulous attention to detail could go overboard, and managing the balance between care and neurotic obsession is Carmy’s biggest struggle. Yet, for much of season two he works to let go of his incessant drive, to at least occasionally shift into a lower gear. He is no longer in the middle of every scene, yelling and controlling the room. In fact, he shares the spotlight with others, including his new girlfriend Claire (Molly Gordon of “Booksmart” fame). Receding to the background is growth for Carmy, and he is often actually happy on screen, something that rarely happened during season one.
Unfortunately for Carmy, he does still have to build and run a restaurant, and extremely well at that, considering the financial pressure heaped on him from his shady but caring benefactor Uncle Cicero. “It is all you … you gotta live this and nothing else,” Cicero tells Carmy in the season’s penultimate episode, and Carmy takes the message to heart. In season two’s final episode (spoiler alert, for those who have not watched the show), on the new resturant’s opening day, Carmy cracks under pressure, reverting to his old, controlling ways, and eventually gets stuck inside the walk-in fridge, succumbing to his many demons while in there. However, the rest of the staff, especially Richie and Sydney — the latter demonstrating her mettle after a season filled with self-doubt — step up and make the night a success without Carmy. In the process of his breakdown, Carmy alienates Sydney, Richie, Claire, and the rest of the restaurant’s staff. When the rescue team comes to break him out of the fridge, he is all alone, and both figuratively and literally sees the light. But “The Bear” leaves us asking: Will this low point spur him on to create lasting growth or will he once again revert to his old ways?
The fact that we are left with this question demonstrates “The Bear’s” uniqueness. The characters and plot points are not unchanging, destined to remain in a toxic loop like HBO’s recent smash hit “Succession.” “The Bear’s” world is real and embodied, and the characters are equally capable of demonstrating deep joy and sadness, compassion and rancor. “Succession” might be the show that contemporary, fractured America wants, but “The Bear” is the show it needs. While “Succession’s” Roy family frays and breaks apart at the first sign of conflict, “The Bear’s'' extended restaurant family stays strong amid stress and fighting, brought together by their deep love of food, service and each other. The show’s most emotionally cathartic scenes always center around family dinner, whether that dinner is beautifully harmonious or ends with a car driven through the house. I sincerely hope that “The Bear” heralds a new age of artistically serious television, one where entertainment and morality coexist.
Photo Caption: “The Bear” wants you to feel how a perfectly sharpened knife, a well-shaped pan, an embroidered smock and a beautifully made omelet can give life substance, sustain family, and show that you care about the world and those around you.”
Photo Credit: Daniel Hooper / Unsplash