The Bear Season 1 Recap: One More Food Service Before Season 2

Carmy ponders if there is anything he can do to save his brother's restaurant, The Beef
Courtesy of FX on Hulu

The following recap and review contains spoilers for The Bear Season 1 (created by Christopher Storer and directed by Christopher Storer and Joanna Calo)

As FX on Hulu prepares for the second season of its all-of-a-sudden smash hit, The Bear, to drop on June 22, there are parallel questions running through both the plot of the show and the production behind last summer’s biggest surprise. Just as Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto and his crew will attempt to turn a Chicago culinary institution like The Beef into a successful new restaurant called The Bear, FX hopes that the popular formula of family-style tension and kitchen drama they created can be replicated when there aren’t any actual customers to serve.

Carmy and Richie argue over how to run the restaurant The Beef
Courtesy of FX on Hulu

In the streaming age where it’s damn near impossible for non-intellectual property, non-tentpole shows to break free from all the digital noise, The Bear seemingly came out of nowhere in the summer of 2022 to become an instant phenomenon. On the backs of impressive performances throughout the entire cast and an easily digestible plot, the show quickly became a critical darling. But very few people were prepared for what happened next.

When the pop-culture dust settled, the show won a Golden Globe, SAG Award, and Critics Choice award, all for Jeremy Allen White’s portrayal of Carmy (his family also refers to him as “Bear”). The show was also nominated for Best/Outstanding Comedy Series for each of those awards.

How did a show go from almost zero buzz to its peak popularity seemingly overnight? Mostly through critical reviews and word of mouth. The Bear has a 100% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes and a 91% audience score. If you want, take all that with a healthy pinch of kosher salt, but those are pantheon-level television numbers.

I, however, fall firmly into the word-of-mouth category as I just happened to stumble across some contacts on Twitter discussing the show, and a family member was checking it out. The combination of those two recommendations convinced me to fire up the stovetop on The Bear and fly through the eight-episode season. I discovered a new genre of “comedy” that focuses on family dynamics, high-stress environments, and the less-than-fine part of fine dining.

Carmy explains to Tina how food should be made at The Bear
Courtesy of FX on Hulu

I’m sure you’ve heard of and seen plenty of Cringe TV before. But have you spent much time with Stress TV? If The Bear didn’t invent the genre, it certainly perfected it. If you spent any time working in a hectic restaurant in years past, this show forced you to relive some of that PTSD. The heightened emotional response The Bear elicits is due to a number of things.

We intensely feel the stakes of the popular Chicago restaurant, The Beef, which was run by Carmy’s brother Michael (Jon Bernthal in a cameo appearance) until his suicide a few months prior. Michael left the restaurant and all its financial and infrastructure issues to Carmy, who was voted Food and Wine’s Best Young Chef, much to the chagrin of Michael’s best friend Richie (played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach in a breakout role) and the diverse, but long-standing staff of The Beef.

All season, Carmy battles his desire (and training) for The Beef to be perfect. The traditions and work ethics of the incumbent staff are deep-seeded and require mountainous effort to get them to slightly change course. But while Carmy battles the quality and consistency of the food, he also battles Richie who wants nothing to change (clearly because his home life is an absolute unpredictable wreck), battles his reluctant co-owner sister Natalie “Sugar” Berzatto (played by SNL alum Abby Elliott) who wants Carmy to face the reality of Michael’s suicide, and battles the crippling $300,000 debt they owe their uncle for bailing out the restaurant during COVID.

Natalie "Sugar" Berzatto sits in the restaurant as she thinks about what to do with it.
Courtesy of FX on Hulu

Michael wasn’t the most organized or attentive manager to the business side of the restaurant, so Carmy can’t make heads or tails of some of the expenses, the orders that come in, and the mysterious frequent payments to KBL Electric where he finds large sums of money is being funneled. Richie finally turns over a letter to Carmy that Michael left for him before his suicide, encouraging Carmy to “let it rip,” the same advice he used to give his younger brother when they were younger and facing challenges.

He also left Carmy the recipe to his family style spaghetti, which includes using the countless 20 ounce cans of tomatoes Carmy has always wondered why they are stored in the restaurant. When Carmy makes the spaghetti for the staff ahead of service, he learns what Michael was trying to show him all along. Dozens of tomato cans (labeled with KBL on the bottom) are full of cash Michael was setting aside to pay off debt. The cash not only can get the restaurant out from under the debt, but can also be seen as an olive branch extended to Carmy from his late brother. A sign that the restaurant now officially belongs to Carmen. Carmy and Sydney decided then that the time is right for a reset. They close The Beef with a promise to its customers that a new restaurant, The Bear, will take its place soon.

But the challenge in Season 2 will not just be getting a new restaurant up and running. It will also be Carmy’s continual quest to get their “brigade” of a kitchen to trust one another, and respect one another.

Throughout the first season, all of those many strained relationships when Carmy tries to instill some law and order in the place are crucially magnified by the way many of the food service scenes are shot. Creator Christopher Storer chose about as cramped a back-of-house restaurant as he could find to make sure the pot boil over during pressure-packed meal services. The tight quarters, razor’s edge financial situation of the restaurant, and residual family drama all contribute to the experience.

The tension and the emotion between these characters ooze off the screen and the entire cast from Jeremy Allen White all the way down to dishwasher Angel (Jose Cervantes) and line cook Sweeps (Corey Hendrix) in strong supporting roles. Much like a restaurant wouldn’t be able to complete a service without each section working in harmony, the personal dynamics Season 1 created in less than four and a half hours of television are remarkable.

Sydney asks for a job at The Beef
Courtesy of FX on Hulu

In addition to Allen White and Moss-Bachrach, the show is headlined by Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) whose family were regular visitors to The Beef in years past. Now a young but immensely talented chef, Sydney seeks out Carmy for a sous chef job and a mentorship after her catering business failed. Along the way, she finds some of the harsh, abusive world of fine dining she was hoping to avoid, but her arc in Season 1 is one of the most well-conceived and performed in the entire show.

In addition to Jon Bernthal’s quick but powerful role, The Bear made excellent use of a cameo from Joel McHale as the Head Chef of French Laundry (the “best restaurant in the world”) who can only be described as a mix between Gordon Ramsey from Hell’s Kitchen and R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket. When Sydney calls Carmy an “absolute piece of shit” in the penultimate episode, it’s only because Carmy begins to fall back on the destructive habits of those that nurtured him through his formative chef days.

I was less impressed by Molly Ringwald’s quick cameos as an Al-Anon group moderator where Carmy visits. They seemingly gave her very little to do and the performance just seemed muted and wasted. I do, however, have high hopes for whatever small role the creators and writers of The Bear have for Bob Odenkirk, who is scheduled to appear in this new season. If they can punch his scenes up as they did with McHale and Bernthal in Season 1, they can then just let Odenkirk be Odenkirk and let him cook (perhaps literally and metaphorically).

But all the Jon Bernthals and Bob Odenkirks and Oliver Platts (who will be back this season playing Uncle Jimmy Cicero) will be meaningless if The Bear can’t recreate what made the show an eight-course serving of haute cuisine that was unlike anything else on television last summer. The surprise factor is decidedly gone. The Bear Season 2 is one of the most highly anticipated shows of the summer season and carries with it a massive weight of expectation.

I remain cautiously optimistic that Christopher Storer and his executive producers can recapture lightning in a bottle while Carmy and Sydney explore chaos menus, restaurant design ideas, and lingering family trauma from Michael’s suicide. The strong cast building on the emotion that already exists as part of the food service experience is what turned the show into an award-winner. Can they do it all over again this summer? We hope the answer is a resounding “Yes, Chef!”

Written by Ryan Kirksey

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