These last few weeks have taken their toll on me. A combination of our endless and voluminous Emmy coverage (be sure to check out our 100+ interviews, predictions, FYC – shameless plug), the summer school vacation, holiday, heat, smoke, rain and more have all kicked my butt, cutting into my time to write reviews. With that said, my brief review hibernation ends now as I am back in full swing going forward.
Before I can proceed with new reviews, I need to share my take on a series that has been stuck in my head since I watched season two over a week ago, Hulu’s The Bear. The series centers around a world class chef, Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) aka The Bear, who returns home to Chicago to run his family restaurant, The Beef, after the sudden death of his brother Michael (Jon Bernthal). Frankly, that description, while accurate and intriguing, does not do the series justice. Like an amazing meal, there’s much more to savor when you dig into it.
When season one of The Bear premiered last year, I knew little about the series besides the presence of a massive billboard that caught my eye around Times Square. (Who said traditional advertising does not work?) I figured if Hulu was investing this much into the series it was worth giving a try. When the series dropped I gave it a taste test; one which quickly turned into a feast. I devoured the entire season over a weekend. It is a drama topped with comedy (or is it the opposite?), with a complimentary side order of grief. The binge left me completely satisfied, but definitely with a big appetite for more.
I always proceed into sophomore seasons with tempered expectations. Could the second course possibly live up to the expectations set up by the first? Let me cut to the chase with a big and bold statement up front. Not only is it better than season one, not only is it instantly in the running for the best TV show of the year, The Bear, if it can serve more courses of perfection, is on its way to being an all-time classic. I do not say that lightly.
Season one’s game-changing finale closed things out with heaping servings of intensity and emotion, leaving me anticipating season two would hop right back into that heart-racing mode again revolving around Chef Carmen. It did not take long to realize that was not going to be the case. The premiere episode opens up in a darkened hospital room, where we find Marcus (Lionel Boyce) sitting beside his dying mother in near silence besides the eerie sound of the medical devices surrounding her. My initial thought was, ‘Wait, did I start the wrong episode or somehow skip ahead a few scenes?’
How show creator/writer/director Christopher Storer chose to open season two defied my expectations. But, as I worked my way through that season, I realized how fitting that scene set up this second course… It’s perfection, Chef. On its surface season two may appear like comfort food, quickly unleashing enjoyable waves of familiar flavors, but the more they linger the more they evolve and shift, revealing nuanced complexity bite after bite.
That’s because contrary to popular belief, The Bear is not a series about a restaurant, food, or business. Sure, they are all part of the mix and a hell of a lot fun to watch. So much so, the restaurant itself is essentially a central character. Beneath the crust of this tasty TV dinner there is something much more delectable at its core. The broad theme of The Bear is about family – the one we are born into, and those who become family along the way. Season two fully embraces those families as well as the challenges and the doubts we all face on the way to finding purpose within them by making full use of the ensemble that plays them.
The series main trio of characters are Carmy, Richard “Richie” Jerimovich (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) aka Cuz, the often-combative brother’s best friend who managed the restaurant under Mikey, and Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) the talented sous-chef who after losing her own business comes to help Carmy restore The Beef to its former glory. In any other series their arcs would be more than enough to satisfy. They each are all so well written, possessing enough detail and complex emotional depth to arguably headline series of their own.
Season one tossed a handful of distinctive characters together into a pressure cooker powered by anxiety and grief set in the chaotic world of the food service as they tried to keep The Beef afloat. This season shifts gears as they crew works to re-invent the restaurant. To do so it shares the more personal experiences of those who make up the ‘family’ as they work toward their collective goal as well as themselves. The storylines intertwine while never losing the qualities fans enjoyed from season one. It is the same manic environment but frequently lowers the heat from high boil to a more meditative simmer as it examines the characters from different perspectives. A character reduction of sorts that results in intensification flavors across this character study.
This is tipped off through Marcus in fore-mentioned moments of the season two opener. While he is a main character in the series, what we knew about him heading into the season was limited to what we learned about him in the kitchen. Watching him tend to his bed-ridden mother who may not even be conscious speaks volumes about the cross he bears behind the exterior of the dedicated and ambitious pastry chef we know.
Storer does not stop there, simultaneously adding layers while peeling back some layers of the character throughout the season. He also makes good use of one ingredient without overdoing it, by injecting more heartwarming moments into the series. This is all on full display during an episode called “Honeydew” showcases Marcus’s journey.
In this episode we travel with Marcus far outside the confines of the kitchen, across the globe to Copenhagen watching him learn about his craft and himself – while never forgetting to keep us abreast of the goings-on at The Bear. It is an episode I did not know I wanted, but quickly realized it was just what I needed. It makes every success and failure much more monumental as the repercussions extend across the whole team. Building the viewers’ bond with the staff well beyond Carmen is a masterstroke, especially when telling this much more collaborative story. The approach extends to all the characters in the series, not always to the same degree as Marcus with individual episodes dedicated to them, but by the time the season ends we know each character in unexpected ways, helping to develop much fuller richer characters that feel lived in.
Even with a dozen or so main and recurring characters, the series never feels overstuffed like a character smorgasbord of randomness. Instead we are treated to a meticulously selected fixed menu – a tasting of all the characters, which uses standalone moments and unique pairings to better explore each contributor of The Bear in a more fulfilling fashion.
The performances are outstanding across the board. Matty Matheson as Neil Fak quickly developed into much more than comic relief he was in season one, while still serving that role quite well too. The third Berzatto sibling, Natalie (Abby Elliott) steps up her game to become a crucial part of the team as the project manager for the restaurant’s top to bottom renovation and rebranding from The Beef to The Bear. The demanding, ultra-tight project deadline she is under is made only more stressful with the looming presence of Oliver Platt’s Uncle Jimmy who is the restaurant’s main investor. He would rather tear the place down and sell it for a few quick millions over putting the blood, sweat and tears into it required to transform it into a successful restaurant. All three are fantastic with Platt delivering some of, if not the best work of his long career.
In the pilot, Carmen and Sydney ask each other, “what are you doing here?” This simple exchange is at the very core of what the series is about. After these two seasons, it is a question which viewers can probably answer for every main character as we begin to learn more and more about each.
In season one, Ayo Edebiri quickly made Sydney one of my favorite characters on television, bringing charisma, drive, and a subdued positivity to her, even while facing her problems head on. Sydney is both strong, kind-hearted and vulnerable all at the same time making her impossible not to root for. White, who has nailed every aspect of Carmen, the fast-thinking, tortured soul as he leads the charge even when the stress is unbearable. This season he dives deeper into Carmy’s soul, the results are entrancing. Edebiri’s chemistry with White makes every scene they share something special to watch.
Believe it or not, even after all the praise for Edebiri and White, it is hard not to argue that the true standout among standouts is Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s performance as ‘Cuz’ aka Richie. The amount of pathos behind all three actors’ eyes is simply unmatchable. But it is the weight carried on the heart of Richie that is almost unbearable and you can sense it with just about every line. He lost his best friend, he’s struggling to find meaningful time with his daughter after his divorce, and is letting his insecurities bring him down, unable to see where he fits in with Carmen and Syd’s new direction for the restaurant. While he can be abrasive as hell, it’s impossible to not feel compassion for this lost and directionless guy. He is a walking personification of that question, “What are you doing here?” Like White and Edebiri, Moss-Bachrach will certainly be remembered next Emmy season (and hopefully this one as well.)
Also keep an eye on Liza Colón-Zayas as Tina whose tough exterior is only a front for the much sweeter person inside, one we luckily get glimmers of. Edwin Lee Gibson plays Ebraheim who does not let his limited lines and lukewarm control of the English language hold him back. New addition Molly Gordon plays Claire, an old girlfriend who resurfaces, stealing some of Camey’s focus during the most make-it-or-break-it part of his life – which may be exactly what he needs. Another element of the series which must be mentioned is the shifting atmosphere created that captivates viewers in this world from the big moments to the small. The show captures the feverish energy of a busy kitchen and bottles it. Quieter more cathartic moments let our guard down only to seconds later have the bottle uncorked, unleashing what seems like a tornado of chaos. It makes my heart race even mentioning it.
Masterful editing and creative cinematography combine to reveal the rhythmic nature underlying it all. A well run kitchen is almost musical while a poorly run kitchen is a cacophony. Quick cutting between extreme closeups jetting from one part of the kitchen to the next and back again following the numerous moving parts, people, food, and dishes as they hone in on that desired rhythm. Some extended takes use a handheld camera to put us on the restaurant floor weaving us throughout the kitchen like a member of the wait staff. (In case you missed it, episode 107 “Review” uses a 20-minute oner to perfection.) Did I mention the delecant food shots? Just a warning, do not watch on an empty stomach.
The series does not hold your hand, it only guides viewers in a way that feels organic as holes in the story of thes emotionally complex characters, including the restaurant itself are filled in. Viewers are along for the ride as the crew works at a breakneck pace to overcome every roadblock thrown their way. Whether it is gas line issues, rotting walls, another stressful inspection, an overcooked broth, or just a missing utensil you can gauge its significance through the level of intensity brought to the scene. Having worked in kitchens in the past, I do have a slightly enhanced connection to the subjects at hand, but thanks to the amazing writing, editing and acting any viewer will feel vested in each win and loss.
If you strip it all down, the main reason The Bear works so well is that every ingredient is used here with a purpose. It is tight and ambitious storytelling, no faux drama, nothing over-stylized for the sake of style – that includes the above-mentioned long shots – they too serve the story and the characters. The focus on details like the dingy lighting and realistically imperfect settings keep us immersed in the world of The Bear/Beef without questioning. It all feels so real that I am sure many who venture to Chicago try to hunt it down.
As usual, I am not getting into too many details for the sake of you enjoying the series on your own. I will say this, episodes 1-5 are absolutely wonderful for all the reasons explained above. Then episode 6, “Fishes”, hits and the bar is somehow raised. Television magic takes place before our eyes in an episode that is nothing short of a masterpiece.
The guest star-filled extended episode takes us back a few years to the childhood home of the three siblings. It is an explosively tense gathering which takes place in the pressure cooker known as the Berzatto family Christmas. I have never seen anything like it before. It left me blown away for so many reasons as it effectively tackles some heavy themes. If you ever sat through a messy family dinner, take that and multiply it by a thousand. Jamie Lee Curtis is spectacular. Period. Bob Odenkirk will make your blood boil. Bernthal will scare and crush your spirits at the same time. You may be reaching for a Xanax as this emotional roller coaster throws you all over the place – laughing, gasping and crying all in one breath. Expect to hear about this episode straight through next year’s Emmys.
After my raves, it would seem anything after the powerful episode 6 would be a letdown. While the ‘Fishes’ is tough to beat, an equally impactful episode painted with a completely different palette of emotions follows. In “Forks” Richie does some self-discovery at another restaurant. It showcases Moss-Bachrach’s range but also the series’ ability to take viewers on a journey to the edge of mania then swinging the pendulum back to the opposite direction with ease. “Forks” is a more subtle, hopeful, and surprisingly sweet episode – just what the doctor ordered after “Fishes” and is no less impressive. It is my favorite episode of the season.
The Bear is a special breed of television that looks to be well on its way to becoming an all-timer. Meeting that mark is quite rare; only a handful have over the last couple of decades. When it happens, you know it, often pretty quickly. After season one, I declared it to be something special, giving it my top praise, “just watch it.” After this unbelievable second season I will repeat that advice.
Storer could have coasted the easy road through season two – an approach that probably would have delivered satisfying results. Instead, like his characters, he had the guts to take the more rewarding route and we are all better off for it. The results speak for themselves; even more ambitious storytelling captures a slice of the messiness and beauty of life, told through an array of rich characters that you cannot help but care for because they feel like real people. The Bear is story of healing, growth, and change told through the lens of the aptly named ‘hospitality’ industry. It is more than TV, it is nourishment for the soul.
I cannot wait for the third course.
Watch both season one and two of The Bear now streaming on Hulu.