After stalling out halfway through, I finished the second season of The Bear last week. Aside from some bright moments, I was disappointed. The first season caught a zeitgeist. I don’t think that the creative team found a way to develop the story elements that made the first season so fresh.
I loved that the first season was not about fine dining. It made room to explore more working class characters and settings. The Original Beef of Chicagoland was a restaurant out of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, not Chef’s Table. The visual language of Carmy’s fine dining flashbacks (the crisp white linens, flatware at perfect angles, chef’s brigade of intense young men) comes from fine dining documentaries. It’s supposed to be a contrast to the earthy, low-margin, traditional, welcoming environment of the Original Beef. Part of the democratic ethos of the show was the idea that there is a way to find excellence here, too. It’s disappointing to slip back to fine dining and it’s attendant connection to wealth and class.
That promise and disappointment are found in secondary characters as well. Like Orange is the New Black and Lost, the first season was an ensemble show. It had generosity and attention for secondary characters. Anyone could anchor an episode. The focus is slowly shifting to a smaller number of main characters. You cannot ignore the racial aspect of this dynamic. Ebraheim, Tina, and Marcus are being left behind to give more time and story to Carmy and Richie. In the final episode of the season there’s a throwaway line that Ebraheim will be serving the old menu out of the back of the restaurant. As if you could fit the whole world of the first season through a Quikserv window.
This is all connected. In the first season, Tina and Ebraheim knew the business of the Original Beef better than Carmy did. He knew the business of fine dining, but he didn’t know this business. That balanced the story and made an interesting power dynamic. While it’s great that the Original Beef crew gets new training, their expertise is no longer needed. Carmy was always able to tap out and go back to fine dining. In the first season, we’re always wondering why he doesn’t. He doesn’t seem to know why. In the second season, that source of tension is gone. Cliched beats about whether he can commit to a relationship don’t reheat well.
It wasn’t all bad. There’s so much talent on this show. Jeremy Allen White, Ayo Edebiri, Ebon Moss-Bacharach and Oliver Platt are so much fun to watch. Richie and Marcus get solo episodes that are fantastic. “Forks” was my favorite episode the show has ever done, and what a magnificent cameo by Olivia Colman. I didn’t like “Fishes” very much, but Jon Bernthal and Bob Odenkirk butting heads at the dinner table was electric.