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FX's The Bear Continues to Reach for Greatness

Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) still dreams of opening a restaurant. Having discovered the money his deceased brother Mikey (Jon Bernthal) stashed in tomato cans, he now has enough cash, or nearly enough, to follow through on his plans for building a high-end establishment. With sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) at his side, he will need to reinvest the money, retool the interior of The Original Beef of Chicagoland (the restaurant formerly owned by his brother) and introduce his staff to new techniques. Most of all, he will need to process the mourning that still resides in himself.   

In the second season of creator Christopher Storer's Chicago-set tragicomedy “The Bear,” every character must not only grapple with loss, but whether their striving for greatness, for a near-unattainable patch of perfection, is worth the sacrifice. We witness the weight of that choice early on: The first episode opens, surprisingly, on a quiet note, with Marcus (Lionel Boyce) caring for his ailing mother. It continues with Carmy's cousin Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) helplessly trying to keep parts of The Original Beef the same, even as its walls are literally collapsing around him. Sydney must contend with the expectations of her blue-collar father (Robert Townsend), while Carmy's sister Natalie (Abby Elliott) takes on a new managerial role at the restaurant that’ll test her health. 

While Carmy is still a mess, he’s also trying to find another path. What if he doesn’t have to be miserable to be a successful chef? That question crosses his mind when a woman (Molly Gordon) from his past reemerges. In that pursuit, Carmy shifts closer to a character not uncommon to television: The mad genius whose brilliance carries such a weight it causes a kind of melancholy that forces him to wonder if he deserves love. 

Similar to a restaurant getting a newer, sleeker look, this season of “The Bear” is less rough around the edges. It relies on glossier, more elaborate visual statements—twirling cameras, canted angles, and vaster locales—along with a jukebox soundtrack of radio hits and a string of surprising cameos propelled by big star power. “The Bear” has also figured out its strongest themes—loss and craft—to develop its characters further. 

It’s worth noting that while I screened the entire 10-episode season, this review only covers the first four episodes. In these installments, the fear of failure figures prominently in each character’s psychology, beginning with Carmy making a reckless deal with his Uncle Jimmy (Oliver Platt) in exchange for a loan. Carmy promises to repay the borrowed money within 18 months, or Uncle Jimmy can claim the lease and land to the restaurant. To make that timeline, Carmy and company need to open the restaurant in the breakneck span of 12 weeks. Pressure mounts on the team as structural issues, permits, and money cause unforeseen obstacles. 

Some of the deepest character work and strongest writing emerge from these moments of failure. Moss-Bachrach, in particular, delivers an acute self-loathing that always feels human, even among this alien world; Liza Colón-Zayas, as the usually grouchy Tina, carves out tender spaces; Boyce is a teddy bear; the new addition of Molly Gordon counterbalances the charged restaurant scenes with a quiet electricity, even as her characters fades after a couple of beats. Unfortunately, Ebraheim (Edwin Lee Gibson) becomes an afterthought amid the series’ firmer figures. 

Also, Sydney still feels basic. Sure, we are given her backstory, and her father finally makes an appearance. But if you’re a Chicagoan, you’re still left wanting by her character. For instance, what neighborhood does she hail from? That may sound nitpicky, but when films are set in New York or Los Angeles, we’re always made painfully aware of the environs these characters spring from. In Chicago, where Black folks come from—whether they be historical, neglected, or both—such a background shapes a person. And yet, within the city's fabric, Sydney still feels like she could be played by anyone from anywhere. It’s only Edebiri who gives this character her tangibility.  

While local restaurants are featured on “The Bear,” the series still sees Chicago as mere window dressing rather than a unique beast: I have a personal pet peeve against any Chicago-based entity that heavily leans on downtown or The Loop as its main vision board for a city that’s so much richer than its glittering center. More so than the first season, this second installment hits that well hard, using at least one montage composed exclusively of skyscrapers per episode. The only reason the myopic vision of what constitutes the city isn’t more grating is that the writers, thankfully, veer from making grander political statements about local geography they know little about (Richie’s rant in Season One about gentrification, delivered with River North—among Chicago’s most affluent neighborhoods—as a proxy is still cringe). 

But in the wider conversation of how all restaurants in Chicago were affected by the pandemic, the series remains on thoughtful ground. Without being too mawkish, Storer draws an effective throughline between real-world misfortunes—few things are harder than putting your all into a business only for it to close—and the thematic fear someone like Sydney has of failing. 

White carries a similar torch. He charts Carmy’s arc with soft nuance, one that sees the talented chef compartmentalizing his rougher edges as oversights build. Instead of putting Carmy’s mourning in your face, White allows it to bubble under the surface. When Carmy is meant to be happy, White lets the nagging specter of possible collapse tug on his body and his eyes. Storer smartly uses the tribulations the other characters face to create the hurdles Carmy must navigate. He doesn't make those difficulties obvious, giving “The Bear” the ability to walk with a lighter step. 

“The Bear” continues providing well-crafted laughs, as with a swift running joke about the problematic aspects of the phrase “Jewish Lighting.” Storer's series is unafraid to show the trial and error, and the hard work that goes into perfecting dishes. While “The Bear,” akin to the chefs at the heart of the show, does struggle at times to work on a wider canvas, it never talks down to the audience, its themes never disappear from view, and the pervading sense of grief never alleviates. In its silent moments, "The Bear" delivers an intimate grace; the series knows the difficulty of wanting to improve in the face of mounting expectations. 

All of Season Two was screened for review. Season Two of "The Bear" premieres on FX on Hulu on June 22nd. 

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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