Season 2 of culinary comedy-drama The Bear opens with pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce) sitting beside his terminally ill mother in a darkened hospital room, the steady beat of the health monitors the only thing breaking the silence. It's a far cry from the chaos of Chicago restaurant The Beef, the primary setting of season 1, which closed its doors in the season finale with promises of something bigger and bolder to come. The fast-paced workplace dramedy, which saw grieving, anxious chef Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) leave behind the world of fine dining to take over the family business from his late brother Michael, sent shivers of recognition down the spine of anyone who's ever worked in the high-pressure, demanding environment of a commercial kitchen – and those who haven't.
The second installment, then, establishes itself as a very different beast from the off. With The Beef now closed, Carmy and newly promoted chef de cuisine Sydney (played by the consistently excellent Ayo Edebiri) are setting plans in motion for a new fine dining venture: The Bear. As the season kicks off, The Bear is still just a hope, a dream, and a moldy shell of a building with dubious business permits, so action in the kitchen is fewer and further between than what we're used to.
This has always been a series grounded in its characters, but season 2 sees the ensemble cast become its driving force as we move out of the kitchen and into their personal lives. It's a risky choice from showrunner Christopher Storer, but one that pays off. Sydney, in particular, comes into her own this season (in part due to Edebiri's performance), with her and Carmy's deepening relationship cementing itself as the emotional bedrock of the 10-episode run.
Also on top form is Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Richie, Michael's loudmouthed best friend who finds himself heading up the new restaurant's construction efforts. Initially the most reluctant to accept Carmy's incoming leadership and Sydney's new blood in season 1, season 2 pulls back the curtain further on Richie's personal life and sees him grapple with the fear of being left behind as he struggles to find his purpose in the restaurant's new world order. A major theme – and perhaps the main thread running through the season – is the way we conceptualize success and our own achievements. Sydney's conversation with her father (Robert Townsend) in episode 2 will strike a chord with anyone who's ever discussed their precarious line of work with a well-meaning parent who just doesn't quite get it.
Another new addition to season 2 is a romantic subplot. Carmy has a meet-cute with former schoolmate Claire (Molly Gordon) while shopping for groceries. Gordon is charming in the role, but her character is the one weak spot in an otherwise strong season. Everything about her and Carmy's dynamic seems a little too contrived, their conversations a bit too convenient. Claire serves to further his character development, but we barely get to glimpse beneath the surface of hers. Ultimately, the vulnerability Carmy shares with Richie, Sydney, or his sister Natalie (Abby Elliott) feels much more believable.
It's also satisfying to watch a deepening bond between Sydney and Marcus and a new, tentative friendship develop between her and Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) after she passes over the mantle of sous chef. Elsewhere, a frustration borne out of love grows between Tina and resistant-to-change line cook Ebra (Edwin Lee Gibson).
The most tantalizing part of The Bear's second season, though? The food, of course. As Carmy and Sydney craft the menu for their new restaurant, Sydney goes on a culinary tour of Chicago, and the camera feasts on plates of food, from ramen to adobo to hash browns, with unapologetic voraciousness, and you can almost feel the grease dripping down Sydney's fingers as she bites into a deliciously oily slice of pizza. One particularly moving scene, in the season's penultimate episode, involves the cooking of an omelette – egg yolks are carefully whisked, chives are gently chopped, and chips are attentively arranged on a plate. It's not for a customer, it's not an order, it's simply a gesture of affection, an act of service to feed someone hungry.
A mid-season flashback episode transports us to Christmas Day in Carmy, Natalie, and Michael's family home, five years prior, and this meal is a much more charged culinary affair. The episode is crammed full of expertly cast A-list cameos, but Jamie Lee Curtis in particular shines as Donna, the family's volatile matriarch. Natalie, who takes on a new role in the season as the restaurant's project manager, is younger and more vulnerable here. She's the family member to bear the weight from their mother's emotional outbursts and try to talk Michael down during an outburst at the dinner table, giving depth to a character that had much less screen time in season 1.
Back in the present, Carmy tells Natalie that "'friends and family' isn't an exact science," and that speaks to the truth of the show – the bond between The Bear's employees is not quite friend or family, but it's kinship. It's support and trust, and picking each other up when they're down. It's complex and knotty, and the season finale reflects that – the relationships these characters have with one another, and themselves, aren't straightforward, and neither is the outcome of The Bear's journey to opening night. It's bittersweet, but it's served up just as carefully as an omelette, chopped chives and all.
All episodes of The Bear season 2 are out now on Disney Plus in the UK and Hulu in the US. For more, fill out your watch list with our picks of the best new TV shows coming our way in 2023 and beyond.