In the second season of creator Christopher Storer’s Chicago-set tragicomedy “The Bear,” every character must not only grapple with loss, but whether their striving for greatness, for a near-unattainable patch of perfection, is worth the sacrifice. We witness the weight of that choice early on: The first episode opens, surprisingly, on a quiet note, with Marcus (Lionel Boyce) caring for his ailing mother. It continues with Carmy’s cousin Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) helplessly trying to keep parts of The Original Beef the same, even as its walls are literally collapsing around him. Sydney must contend with the expectations of her blue-collar father (Robert Townsend), while Carmy’s sister Natalie (Abby Elliott) takes on a new managerial role at the restaurant that’ll test her health.
While Carmy is still a mess, he’s also trying to find another path. What if he doesn’t have to be miserable to be a successful chef? That question crosses his mind when a woman (Molly Gordon) from his past reemerges. In that pursuit, Carmy shifts closer to a character not uncommon to television: The mad genius whose brilliance carries such a weight it causes a kind of melancholy that forces him to wonder if he deserves love.
Similar to a restaurant getting a newer, sleeker look, this season of “The Bear” is less rough around the edges. It relies on glossier, more elaborate visual statements—twirling cameras, canted angles, and vaster locales—along with a jukebox soundtrack of radio hits and a string of surprising cameos propelled by big star power. “The Bear” has also figured out its strongest themes—loss and craft—to develop its characters further.
It’s worth noting that while I screened the entire 10-episode season, this review only covers the first four episodes. In these installments, the fear of failure figures prominently in each character’s psychology, beginning with Carmy making a reckless deal with his Uncle Jimmy (Oliver Platt) in exchange for a loan. Carmy promises to repay the borrowed money within 18 months, or Uncle Jimmy can claim the lease and land to the restaurant. To make that timeline, Carmy and company need to open the restaurant in the breakneck span of 12 weeks. Pressure mounts on the team as structural issues, permits, and money cause unforeseen obstacles.