In the time since it premiered on Hulu as the surprise hit of last summer, FX’s The Bear has often been regarded as stressful TV — usually in a complimentary way. The comedy-drama, about the struggles of a Chicago sandwich shop to stay afloat amid various personal and professional crises, is definitely one of the most relentlessly paced series streaming right now, full of people yelling and alarms beeping and a catastrophic accident always seconds away. But calling The Bear stressful does a poor job of describing why it was so magnetic, or why anyone would blaze through its 10-episode first season in no time at all. A better word would be alive. The Bear has a pulse in a way few TV shows on the air right now do, and to watch it is to hear that pulse pounding in your ear.
Now in its second season — premiering all at once on Hulu, like the first — The Bear continues to follow the staff of The Original Beef as they tear down their old sandwich shop and attempt to turn it into something new: a bold, full-service restaurant that will take Chicago by storm. The trouble is, none of them really know how to do that.
The Bear is a work of controlled chaos, always crashing, shouting, scrambling to make it to the end of its 20-odd-minute episodes. From this mess, something coherent, and delicious, emerges. In the first season, it was a story about camaraderie and grief, as hot NYC chef Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) returned to Chicago after his brother’s death to keep his brother’s sandwich shop afloat but also class it up some. Carmy’s struggle to hold onto his Chef’s Table-esque approach in a grimy hole in the wall proved to be an ideal vehicle for the raw heart of the show — his arrogance kept him from seeing the potential or pain of others, as he ignored the pain of his own grief to stubbornly push forward.
It also meant Carmy was forced to do all sorts of things to keep The Beef afloat, like catering a kid’s birthday party (and accidentally drugging the kids with Xanax).
In season 2, everyone is working on getting better, but they’re still hopelessly themselves. Carmy has partnered with his former sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) to turn The Beef into The Bear, a restaurant fueled by his ambition and her ideas. Together, The Beef’s scrappy crew starts from square one, shouting, stumbling, and demolishing their way toward something they can call their own.
Throughout, The Bear remains a showcase for excellent performances, as scenes both tender and chaotic are observed by the same claustrophobic framing; every line of dialogue is delivered against the din of people working in the background; and characters shine through movement above all else. White, as Carmy, leans and itches and wars with his impulses in every frame. In contrast, Edebiri’s Sydney is more measured and unsure of herself, perhaps more physically still but with her mind always racing, wondering if she has what it takes and if her partner can be trusted. Together, they’re the center of The Bear’s universe, the Big Bang that every other character spirals out from, like Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), best friend to Carmy’s late brother and a perpetually angry force of nature that The Beef can’t quite live without.
Again: The Bear is alive, doing everything it can to scrape by with what it has, breaking people down and building them back up, trying to find ways in which abrasive, busy, distracted characters can complement and bring out the best in one another. In other words: It’s cooking.