FX’s second season of The Bear gives both dignity and drama to the realities of work.

Jeremy Allen White as Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto in season two of The Bear. (FX Networks, 2023)

I was worried about watching the second season of The Beardubbed “Part II” in the opening episode — because I couldn’t see how it could possibly sustain the level of riveting intensity achieved in the first season. But I needn’t have worried. Though this fast-moving, ten-episode Hulu series includes drastic narrative changes to the basic situation that defined it, The Bear is still tremendous.

It’s probably the finest show about hardscrabble ambition ever made, because it dramatizes in such harrowing detail how the odds are stacked against anyone trying for greatness who doesn’t have a lot of money. Keeping in mind that it’s almost impossible to achieve greatness even if you do have a lot of money.

If you recall, season one of The Bear was all about Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), a young chef of extraordinary talent who cuts his rising New York City career short to come home and try to save his family’s run-down Italian sandwich shop, the Original Beef of Chicago. “The Beef” had been run by Carmy’s brother Mikey (Jon Bernthal), until his escalating drug addiction, enormous unpaid debts to their Uncle Cicero (Oliver Platt), and all the other crushing pressures of maintaining a small, foundering family business drove him to suicide.

Carmy’s attempts to transform the sandwich shop into a real restaurant by his own exacting standards propelled the narrative of the first season. He had to win over the recalcitrant line cooks, especially the ferocious Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas), who was dedicated to the old way of doing things. And the insecure, strident manager Richie Jerimovich (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), called “Cousin” because he grew up with the Berzatto kids, made himself impossible at every turn. More obsessed with the family than any of them, he expressed his furious envy of Carmy by opposing every change he made.

But Carmy’s new hire, expert sous-chef Sidney Adamo (Ayo Edebiri), quickly made herself invaluable, and sweet-natured cook Marcus (Lionel Boyce) was the first convert to learn to love exchanging the respectful title “Chef,” while discovering an unexpected ambition of his own to become a skilled creator of exquisite desserts.

Season one ended with the discovery of Mikey’s secret stash of cash, hundreds of thousands of dollars of unpaid loan money owed to Uncle Cicero. Season two begins with Carmy’s even more high-stakes attempt to gut The Beef and transform it into The Bear, a fine-dining restaurant, in a matter of a few months. Ironically, he and Sydney — a partner in this new endeavor — have to go to Uncle Cicero for more money once they do a budget and realize how much such a nearly-impossible moon-launch attempt like this is going to cost. Uncle Cicero is only persuaded once Carmy promises him that he’ll own the whole property if they can’t pay him back in eighteen months. With that tight time frame, a moon-launch becomes more like a launch to Jupiter.

As Sidney studies the new restaurant prospects in Chicago, it’s all bad news — restaurants closing all over, long lead times before profits accrue in new restaurants, and corrupt partners who run off with the profits. Those in the restaurant industry whom she approaches for advice can only grimace when hearing about the situation at The Bear.

This begins the white-knuckle period tracked by obsessive reminders of the ticking clock (“Eleven weeks to launch”) as the team hits every imaginable roadblock to success. Mold and termites in the building, ceilings caving in, malfunctioning toilets that defy all plumbing expertise, permits that are a bureaucratic nightmare to get, municipal fees attached to every move they make, kitchen mishaps as Sidney’s cooking abilities go haywire, and personal crises as Marcus’s mother is dying and sister Natalie “Sugar” Berzatto (Abby Elliott), operating as project manager, reveals that her alarming pallor and nausea are due to an unfortunately timed pregnancy.

Whether Sidney can become as driven as Carmy — whether anyone can become that driven on purpose, who doesn’t already have a built-in motor of ambition driving them relentlessly — is a question. Certainly it’s contagious, the yen for greatness (or at any rate, trying for greatness). It’s not fun. It’s mostly grueling, and usually results in failure. But it’s also enthralling.

This is poignantly illustrated by the way line cooks Marcus, Tina, and Ebraheim (Edwin Lee Gibson) are increasingly embroiled. Pushed into it when he and Tina are sent to cooking school in the interim when the restaurant is being gutted and remodeled, Ebraheim complains, “Why do I gotta go, I already know it all.”

But soon there he is at school, having to wear the spotless white apron and cap that make his training official. There he finds he can’t chop vegetables with the speed and precision of the others. It’s painful to see the face of this older man, hair gray, learning to chop vegetables at a higher skill level after a lifetime of cooking. We see him after hours — when everyone’s gone —quietly chopping away all on his own.

Marcus has an idyllic interlude in Copenhagen, learning to make desserts that are works of art. He’s being trained by a young Londoner named Luca (Will Poulter) who started cooking so early, he’s already been at it fourteen years. “Wrong. That’s worse. Do it again,” he says relentlessly but not cruelly, as Marcus tries to acquire mad haut-cuisine skills like correctly placing some tiny embellishment in an exquisitely made dessert.

This training is made bearable by Marcus’s own steadiness of character, the expansiveness of the whole travel experience, and Luca’s willingness to share his own story of coming up against a far better cook, after years of hubris. He got past his raging envy by attaching himself to the superior chef to learn all he could.

“Like Scotty Pippin with Michael Jordan,” says Marcus, in one of season two’s innumerable comparisons to sports, with its team-building theories, its recognition of the mysteries of talent and the miracles of outstanding achievement, and the constant grinding effort to achieve near-impossible levels of skill.

It’s the agonizing crux where sky-high aspirations meet the hideously unjust, entrenched, down-dragging restrictedness of working and lower-middle-class life that the series dramatizes so well. No doubt the most brilliant people who ever lived in the world were — and are — laboring people who never had a chance to pursue their ambitions or fulfill their talents. Or even discover what their ambitions and talents were, because they were too busy and too tired and too discouraged just trying to make a living.

The most poignant moment in season two, up to the halfway point of the fifth episode, is when Sidney, knowing she’ll be overwhelmed by her wide-ranging duties as Carmy’s partner in running the restaurant, asks Tina to be her sous-chef. Twentysomething Sidney stammers and flounders while asking the formidable middle-aged Tina to take this position under her, repeatedly hedging, “You probably won’t want to do this.” But when she finally gets it out, Tina embraces her so hard she hoists her off the ground.

There’s a beautifully held shot on Tina after Sidney walks off, as Tina stands there with an exalted smile on her face, looking at reality transformed by her own suddenly elevated sense of herself. Just being invited to perform at a higher level, to join a group of brilliantly talented people in an exciting endeavor — which seems so impossible for so many people that it doesn’t occur to them it can happen — is among the most thrilling things in life.

These moments are parsed out so sparingly — they’re generally hogged by the rich, who get all the opportunities anyway and can’t appreciate them and face almost no consequences if they fail — that it’s a real tribute to The Bear, capturing the feeling of wonder and ecstasy as the world of possibilities opens up.

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