When Chicagoans last left Carmy Berzatto, the pouty, rumpled chef-turned-heartthrob protagonist of FX’s hit series The Bear, he was closing his family’s worn beef stand to make way for a new and presumably more polished restaurant. Likely designed to wrap up the story arc on a high, hopeful note, the scene raises a pointed question: What will become of the show’s working-class roots in Season 2?
On the precipice of the restaurant’s transformation from the Original Beef of Chicagoland to the Bear, the gap between the old and new is apparent in a preview that shows longtime line cooks Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) and Ebraheim (Edwin Lee Gibson) standing out like sore thumbs among their much younger culinary school classmates. Despite being kitchen veterans at the Beef, they must prove themselves yet again to play ball at the Bear. Their trajectory could go so far as to encapsulate an ever-present push and pull between being a blue-collar Chicago and one that’s a world-class dining destination and home of the glitzy James Beard Awards gala.
This tension is familiar to Chicagoans, who have watched many former institutions like reborn late-night haunt Carol’s Pub, Goose Island Beer’s original brewpub, and bar relic the California Clipper undergo drastic remodels with new ownership paranoid the alterations would alienate regulars, angry about any semblance of change. Could The Bear’s writers (themselves in the midst of a labor dispute) embrace this conflict in the new season? One could conjure scenes of regulars complaining to reporters about the removal of The Original Beef of Chicagoland sign, as in the case of dive bar stalwart Gold Star, or compose angry social media posts about price hikes. Rumors about late-night hours might spread among neighbors, setting them at odds with the Bear even before it opens. An out-of-town restaurant group with deep pockets could move in across the street and set up shop in half the time, undermining sought-after opening fanfare.
The alterations coming to the former Beef will be significant and would be the source of much hyper-local debate in the real world. It’s an element that was oddly absent in Season 1, which largely dwelled on Carmy’s internal battles over the death of his brother and a derailed career.
Now that viewers are acquainted with its gritty style and exhaustive pace, Season 2 seems an opportune time for the show to cast its gaze beyond the kitchen. No restaurant is an island, especially in Chicago, and an exploration of a relationship between the Bear and the city at large could give the restaurant contextual roots that it otherwise lacks. Viewers will decide if The Bear retains its potency once the 10-episode season drops Thursday, June 22, on Hulu.
Ultimately, what Season 2 needs is more Chicago — full stop. “The city that works” has the juice to be more than a decoration, it needs to be treated as a character unto itself, a living entity that comforts Carmy and Sydney through their kitchen crises, one that extends beyond a purely transactional relationship. It might be a lot to ask from a TV show, but if Sex and the City could do it with New York, so can The Bear with Chicago.