'The Bear' deftly turns the 'CORNER!' into Season 2
It's hard to maintain the level of enthusiasm that critics and audiences worked up over The Bear last summer. The impeccably made story of Carmy (Jeremy Allen White), who takes over the family beef-sandwich shop after the death of his brother, not only had people chanting "Yes, chef," but it brought attention to the whole company — particularly White, Ayo Edebiri as Carmy's new sous chef, and Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Carmy's cousin Richie, who worked in the shop for years while Carmy was off training for fine dining.
The second season arrived this week, and the bottom line is that it avoids just about every pitfall that second seasons can encounter. It's one of the most successful follow-ups I can remember to a first season that generated this much heat.
The Bear is still Carmy's story at heart, but rather than intensify its focus on him (particularly in the wake of the perhaps unanticipated levels of pure erotic enthusiasm that White generated), Season 2 widens its attention to the ensemble even more than before. Sydney has her own stories, Richie has his — but so do the shop's longtime cook Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas), pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce), and Carmy's sister Natalie (Abby Elliott). It would have been easy for creator Christopher Storer and the rest of the team to "yes, chef" their way through this set of 10 new episodes, focusing on fan service and flexing the muscles of a show with a lot of goodwill on its side.
But they don't do that at all. Instead, there are experiments with what Kathryn VanArendonk at Vulture has helpfully termed "departure episodes," where you get a chance to explore what's going on with a sharp focus on particular characters outside the most common settings and rhythms of the show — here, one example would be an episode where Marcus goes off to improve his skills and works with a chef played by Will Poulter. There are others; I wouldn't dare spoil them.
One of the things the show does this season that I suspect will be differently received in different corners is its deployment of unpublicized guest stars — which goes back to Season 1 and the fact that it wasn't publicized ahead of time that Jon Bernthal would be playing Carmy's late brother Mikey in flashbacks. The Bear has become, for lack of a more exact term, a very cool show, and it's able to nail down some pretty impressive guest stars, most of whom you should encounter on your own (don't read any of the lists that are circulating; consider them true spoilers).
But these don't feel show-offy, like mere "hey, look who we can get now" demonstrations. The Bear does a very, very smart thing with guest stars, which is that it uses people with big, well-established personas and reputations to play characters who loom large in the minds of characters we already know.
Think of, for instance, when Marlon Brando played Superman's father in the Christopher Reeve Superman movie. (Stay with me.) The character of Jor-El needs to be big, important, indelible, the kind of person who could potentially bestow a superhuman upon Earth. So no matter what you think of the long and fairly ponderous Krypton sequence, it makes perfect sense that it's Marlon Brando. If it were just Some Actor, would it really work the same way? It's a fiction that actors ever really disappear into roles (with very rare exceptions). They bring with them your sense of who they are, and they hit additional notes just by being accompanied by their own history. (See: casting Tom Hanks as "Sully" Sullenberger, the hero pilot, which did half the work in establishing Sullenberger as an outsize good-doer.)
When you watch The Bear and you watch these performances, ask yourself whether the effect would be the same if it were a character actor you didn't recognize. Not because there's anything lacking in the skills of character actors, who make enormous contributions to this season of The Bear, the last season of The Bear, and television generally. But with these particular characters, as you watch, think about what it accomplishes to cast a familiar face rather than one that asks the audience to start from scratch.
This season also finds the right balance between sticking with what works and immediately pushing the story forward. At the end of last season, we saw that Carmy and Sydney intended to close The Beef and open a new restaurant called The Bear. This season is ... well, I was about to say it's the Build-The-Bear Workshop, but I wouldn't do that to you. It is, however, the story of building something new, and the focus on the new place means the show retains some of The Beef's high pressure and hard work, but moves those rhythms to a very different process — the process of creating a restaurant rather than running one.
In doing so, The Bear dispenses with any fantasy that just because Carmy's staff is talented and capable, they could instantly pivot from a sandwich shop to fine dining without any adjustments. It respects the fact that they would need to develop some different skills — some of the ones that Carmy brought with him last season before he learned to master sandwich-shop life from them. We've seen Carmy barge into Richie's world; we now see what might happen if Richie were transported into Carmy's world. It makes use of the same complex characters and the same deeply developed relationships, but it also shakes up the specifics enough that you'd never mistake a scene from this run of episodes for a scene from the last. It was before, and it remains now, a show about work, one that is about training and not just natural genius. People are allowed to fail, sometimes more than once, because learning is not magic; it is repetition, attention and persistence.
I have quibbles here and there — for one, there is a new character who appears as a potential love interest for Carmy who is not as developed as the rest of the characters on the show, which is a regrettably common problem with Potential Love Interest characters. And more than anything, I dearly wish this show were being put out week by week rather than all at once, because it is a perfect candidate for a degree of molecular dissection that, as something dropping all at once, it probably won't get simply because of the nature of an all-episodes release.
At the same time, I watched all 10 episodes in one day, so how can I complain?
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