Last summer, the first season of “The Bear” quickly found that sweet — and somewhat rare — spot where audiences and critics embraced it together. The drama-comedy-but-mostly-drama hybrid became a hit, bringing viewers into the workings of a beef sandwich shop in Chicago and the crew struggling to improve it (and themselves).
On Thursday, “The Bear” is back and — braise the lord and be still a la carte! — its magic is fully intact. No sophomore slump here. In many ways the series returns much as it left, a pacy take on a community of chefs, an intimate glimpse at a family scarred by alcoholism, and a study in grief. The musical sequences kick in regularly, and the camera continues to move in ordered chaos through the episodes — except when it gets close to and lingers on the unusual angles of Jeremy Allen White’s face as Carmy, our introverted hero with perfectly mussed hair, aqua eyes, and a dream.
But the show, created and written by Christopher Storer, also returns with a stronger sense of mission and identity, as it digs deeper into its cast of characters and, best of all, into the ecstasies and emotional incentives of being a chef and restaurateur. Since the show began, the characters have taken their jobs a little too seriously, as if running a beef house was akin to running the White House. Their exchanges, punctuated by “Chef,” are at times tinged with an Aaron Sorkin-esque sense of high drama and self-importance. But in season two, we get a stronger understanding of why the service industry means so much to each of them, why it sometimes seems like their lives are at stake over the plating of a petit four. We also get a tour of some great-looking dishes and desserts.
This season, Carmy’s dream is becoming a reality, as he and Syd, played with expert restraint by Ayo Edebiri, work to create a pricier and more food-centric restaurant in the beef house’s rotting home. To be called The Bear, the new place is Carmy’s attempt to pursue his passion while correcting his late brother’s mistakes and coming to terms with his family history. On one level, it’s all very “let’s put on a show,” as Carmy, Syd, Carmy’s sister Natalie (Abby Elliott), hot-headed family friend Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), and others struggle to finish the massive rehab before opening day. We even get “X days until opening”-type screen type as the gang face unexpected obstacles such as mold and the byzantine world of permitting.
On another level, the second season — which gets better with each new episode — explores the characters who established themselves last year, with some episodes focusing almost solely on a specific member of the ensemble. I’m not going to spoil any of the specific plot points (or name any of the surprising guest stars), but it’s worth noting that the show expands its scope by leaving Chicago on occasion. We get a closer look at Syd’s emotional limitations, which gives Edebiri more time to shine, and Moss-Bachrach once again proves he’s among the best in the ensemble as the chip on Richie’s shoulder only grows with the creation of The Bear. As Marcus the pastry chef, Lionel Boyce gives an unforgettably tender performance.
White is compelling, as usual, and I’m happy to see viewers appreciating him after his extraordinary work on “Shameless” went unnoticed for too long. There are some amusing scenes between him and Edebiri early on, as two socially awkward people who click professionally think about taking the friendship outside the kitchen. Storer gives Carmy a love interest this season, played with buoyancy and directness by Molly Gordon (“Animal Kingdom”), and we get to see our well-defended hero consider the possibility of allowing something into his life that has nothing to do with food. As we learn more about the Berzatto clan, as we see them in action in a riveting and extended flashback (involving lots of food), the nature of Carmy’s issues becomes clearer. As he creates The Bear from the ashes of his family’s business, the guy is clearly bearing a heavy burden.
Starring: Jeremy Allen White, Ayo Edebiri, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Lionel Boyce, Liza Colon-Zayas, Abby Elliott, Oliver Platt, Molly Gordon
On: Hulu. All 10 episodes stream Thursday