The Bear season two review: As frenetic and intense as ever, this chef drama sizzles in the skillet

Oscar winners Jamie Lee Curtis and Olivia Colman enter the pressure cooker as the show’s restaurant goes from dive to fine dining

Nick Hilton
Wednesday 19 July 2023 06:39 BST
The Bear season 2 trailer

Salt, fat, acid, heat. These are, according to American chef Samin Nosrat, the four elements that good cooking revolves around. They could just as easily be the ingredients of great modern television: the cynical tang of salt on the edge of lachrymosity, the insulating human warmth of fat, acid’s harsh repudiation of sentiment, and heat, the lit fire of writing and performances that makes the mouth water. The Bear, Disney+’s much-garlanded series about a Chicago restaurant, has all these constituents – and, returning for its second series, sizzles in the skillet.

The dysfunctional team behind The Original Beef of Chicagoland – Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), cousin Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) – are back in business. Their new restaurant, The Bear, is, permits pending, launching in a few months, meaning they’re in a race against time to train their brigade and get the place ready to transition to haute cuisine. “This is a terrible idea,” comes Sydney’s verdict, when the launch date is circled on a calendar. But with money running tight, options are even scarcer.

At the same time, Carmy, Richie, and the Berzatto sister Sugar (Abby Elliott) are still dealing with grief. Mikey, the spendthrift drug addict brother whose suicide precipitated Carmy’s return to Chicago, is a spectre hanging over The Bear – both the restaurant and the show. Sydney, meanwhile, has given up a promising culinary career to apprentice with Carmy, and is facing the opprobrium of her father (Robert Townsend). The cast, from White’s hangdog virtuoso to Edebiri’s wide-eyed wunderkind and Moss-Bachrach’s unhinged interloper, are uniformly excellent, a well-oiled machine serving different emotional stations.

The Bear is frenetic: at times it hisses like sauteed onions, at others, it burbles like roiling stock. The controlled pandemonium of a chef’s kitchen – so viscerally portrayed in the writing of Anthony Bourdain or the reality TV of Gordon Ramsay – reaches aggressively stressful crescendos. “Yes chef!” audiences yell, in unison with the kitchen staff. But The Bear is also slow and talky at times, giving its characters long near-monologues to express their interiority. It is, as poet Matthew Arnold famously wrote, “the turbid ebb and flow… of human misery”.

The Bear has just been nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series at the 2023 Primetime Emmys (as well as Best Comedy Actor, Supporting Actor and Actress in a Comedy, Best Comedy Writing, etc). This may surprise the show’s viewers, as The Bear is many things before it is funny. Creator Christopher Storer’s script is relentless, nerve-wracking, poignant, and then – and only then – funny. Like many of the best shows of the past year – Succession or The White Lotus, both of which are competing in the Drama category at the Emmys – The Bear is a merger of genres. “Yo,” shouts ne’er-do-well Richie, “you ever think about purpose?”

“I love you,” Carmy replies, “but I do not have time for this.”

With the unexpected success of the first season, the new episodes expand the canvas. Among the cast joining the second series are Oscar winners Jamie Lee Curtis and Olivia Colman, as well as great small-screen presences, like Sarah Paulson, John Mulaney and Bob Odenkirk. Perhaps as an acknowledgement of its impact on the Chicago scene, chefs, like Dylan Patel, Donnie Madia and David Posey, make cameos representing the city’s foodies. But no development is as narratively important as the introduction of Claire (Molly Gordon), an improbably perfect love interest for Carmy. “You’re the bear,” she tells him, as they meet-cute at a bodega. “And I remember you.”

In transitioning from The Beef to The Bear, the shabby joint goes from dive to fine dining; and this second volume of the show adds the same rich, glossy glaze. At times it lacks the dramatic crackle of the breakout first series, and the absence of an operational kitchen until the finale means much of the culinary tension has to be outsourced. But The Bear is still an intense, pressure-cooked experience. “I am currently opening a restaurant,” Carmy tells his Al-Anon meeting, “that’s providing zero amusement or enjoyment.” Thankfully, his struggles are more easily, and deliciously, experienced from the comfort of your sofa.

‘The Bear’ season two is on Disney+ from 19 July

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