There are few things more exciting in television than watching a series take the leap. Those who stuck with The Leftovers saw it emerge as one of the best shows of the decade. Succession shook off its first-season jitters and began firing on all cylinders. Even all-time great shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad took jumps from season to season. We can now include The Bear in the stratosphere of great television. The personal relationships between chefs and staff are not just good. It’s the most devasting and powerful show on television.
After finding the money left behind by his older brother, Carmy (Jermey Allen-White) plans to open a restaurant. Working with his business partner and sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), the two work to create a new fine dining restaurant in Chicago. They push their staff to new experiences in the process. Carmy’s sister Sugar (Abby Elliott) steps into GM and Project Manager roles. Ritchie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) takes over front-of-house duties while trying to find his purpose in this new adventure. Marcus (Lionel Boyce) travels abroad and cares for his sick mother. Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) explores her talent for the first time. Even Fak (Matty Matheson) moves from repairman to a staff role. As the new venture approaches, Carmy becomes distracted by an old flame – Claire (Molly Gordon).
What makes The Bear click into place is its ability to make us deeply care for each member of the ensemble. Few shows can accomplish this feat, but creator and showrunners Christopher Storer and Joanna Calo, draw from real-world examples, restaurants, and experiences. Storer and Calo put themselves into the show in ways few would feel comfortable. The specificity of the anger, comedy, and heart can only be achieved through this process. Every character throughout The Bear is richer for it.
Building something unique from the ground up takes focus and devotion. It’s hard to ignore the parallels between Storer & Calo’s choice to push The Bear to new heights and the staff’s push to make their restaurant the best in Chicago. They call in every favor, pulling out a stunning guest star roster including Jon Bernthal, Jaime Lee Curtis, Bob Odenkirk, Will Poulter, Sarah Paulson, and more. Add in the absolutely killer soundtrack featuring Wilco, The Replacements, R.E.M., and Dean Martin, and every dime of the budget is on display.
Yet it’s with the cast we’ve grown to love that the show is at its best. It’s impossible to state how good White and Edebiri are here. Every scene feels urgent and essential. We feel the squeeze and anxiety they go through emotionally, and how their relationship evolves over the season becomes its primary storyline. White’s ability to showstop has never been in doubt, but Edebiri joins him in the upper echelon of young talent working in the industry. She’s due for a massive breakthrough, with The Bear, Theater Camp, and Bottoms all releasing within two months of each other.
Moss-Bachrach proves he’s among the best working actors today. A simple scene allowing him to peel mushrooms with arguably the greatest actress working right now (leaving nameless so we do not spoil) makes it clear he can hold the screen against anyone. The longtime journeyman actor soars this season, and the offers will pour in after his amazing turn in the back half of the season. Colón-Zayas finally gets her moment to shine, slaying her moments in the spotlight and making our hearts break in new ways. Her excitement becomes infectious, and the joy becomes a beacon of hope for anyone struggling to find their moment.
Wisely, Storer & Calo fill in the side characters of the show and allow them more prominent placement this season. We could watch Boyce work through a quiet emotional journey any time, and he proves the ability to hold the camera’s attention away from the big names that headline the show. His masterclass in subtlety runs the entire season and is an essential ingredient in powerful moments late in the season. Elliott gets significantly more screen time and, as a result, becomes one of our favorites.
Who knew that Matheson could hold the screen beyond the pure energy he brings to the table? His ability to steal scenes becomes one of The Bear’s secret ingredients in eliciting laughs. Edwin Lee Gibson and Corey Hendrix get limited screen time this season but leave the season with several unforgettable moments. Returning character Oliver Platt delivers a sumptuous monologue about Alex S. Gonzalez, a former shortstop for the Chicago Cubs, which spoke to this Marlins fan on half a dozen personal levels.
Storer’s sister, Courtney “Coco” Storer, worked in many of the best restaurants in the world. The writers mine this, as well as Matheson’s stories, to gain unprecedented authenticity. For those of us who have ever opened a restaurant, The Bear takes another leap forward. The frustrations of running a sandwich shop were always palpable. Yet the rebuild, the deadlines, the crunch, and the anxiety loom every frame. Menus are rebuilt and reworked on the fly while the chefs attempt to showcase their style.
Nearly everything about The Bear Season 2 lands. The one aspect that does not, Claire, feels distracting despite providing ground for character development. This was a miscalculation by Storer & Calo. Gordon’s performance walks directly into the “manic-pixie dreamgirl” trope and does not square with the rest of the show. Yes, these moments are intentionally visually jarring (the use of a 100 mm lens proves as much). Claire takes Carmy out of the restaurant world and shows him what life could be away from it all. The relationships he already cultivated tether him to the restaurant world. We needed Carmy to be distracted, which makes a storyline like Claire’s essential. However, while Storer & Calo needed to create this moment does not mean the execution was there. It’s the only aspect of The Bear that feels less than excellent.
Despite this qualm, The Bear soars. From moment to moment, you will laugh harder than you have in a week. In the next scene, you might sob. From moment to moment, The Bear feels transcendent. The incredible team adding their weight to the series showcases the power of creativity. When a series can bring in Robert Townsend, Ramy Youseff as a director and allow breakthrough moments for an actor like Andrew Lopez, it’s simply operating at another level. Expectations are the hardest thing to manage, but The Bear outdoes its stunning first season. It’s hard to imagine any show will be better in the rest of 2023.