To punish myself for living an imperfect life, I sometimes watch a really terrible TV series right to the very end, just to make sure I am right about it (I always am). This is how I ended up watching the second series of True Detective, which is dreadful in every possible way: Vince Vaughn is horribly miscast; it’s filmed with all the style of a filler episode of CSI; the central mysterious murder is impossible to care about; and, crucially, it seems to have been written and made and acted in by people who have never consumed any art beyond a mid-game mission from GTA V. Colin Farrell is the only one doing any acting, and even then it’s to such a non-end that I am retroactively rescinding a star from my personal review of The Banshees of Inisherin for his involvement in it.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about second-season syndrome as a result, and how common it used to be. Back in 2015, when True Detective was ruining the legacy of its first season with the doomed second, it was fairly common to see TV shows not know how to start again after neatly finishing up their first series and getting more lauded than expected. It makes sense: when you’re creating a 10-episode run of TV, you truly don’t know if it’s going to get picked up again, so you try to write a story freestanding enough to make sense if it gets cancelled but with enough loose ends to pick up again should it not be (if you closely watch the early seasons, they kept doing this with Breaking Bad). Then you get the phone call from HBO saying: “We’ve seen the audience figures and guess what – we now love it!” and you realise you’ve painted yourself into a corner. Follow-up problems happen with albums, they happen with books. Sometimes you just run out of road.
All of this is to say: the second series of The Bear – last year’s show-of-the-year contender where Jeremy Allen White plays a Michelin-level chef in a T-shirt trying to turn round a doomed Chicago sandwich shop – is here, and how neatly it has sidestepped every possible second-season syndrome pitfall is wonderful to watch. We start by making them poor again – and putting the gang in the middle of a spirallingly expensive refit at the behest of a loan shark suddenly brings back the tension that this show needs to thrive. It also does well to mark out how hard the hospitality industry is finding things post-Covid, money and staffing and demand-wise, which is another area where this show sings: it shows you the 5am starts and the bureaucratic paperwork and the need to go outside and smoke a cigarette alone for a second just as much as it does the “Damn, that sauce is good!” moments of magic. Another great decision was to make the city of Chicago a rugged background character (similar to how this year’s Beef made its LA backdrop so crucial to the story – something True Detective season two completely forgot).
But mainly, this series gives every character a (real, good, richly textured) story. An easy way of resolving the huge audience reaction to the first series was to go: “Oh, you like these characters, do you? Well what if you watched 10 episodes of nice things happening to them, and some of them fall in love!” which is what Ted Lasso did. The Bear defies that: Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s Richie is 45 and divorced and doesn’t know his place in the world, but he’s trying his best not to yell about it; Lionel Boyce’s Marcus is trying to balance the two opposing forces of a terminally ill mother and finding meaning in boundary-pushing desserts; Tina and Ebraheim are sent to culinary school and having completely different later-in-life experiences of education. The first series made everyone sit up and realise Jeremy Allen White was an absolute star and it’s wild we’ve been messing around with Timotheé Chalamet so long when we already had him, and I hope the same happens for Ayo Edebiri this year, because I don’t think anyone on Earth right now is acting at a level where “moving your mouth into three different shapes and not saying anything” conveys quite as much as she is conveying.
I needed this. I really needed this. Right: back to watching Vince Vaughn say something unconvincing to a room full of gangsters for six more hours, to absolve myself of my various sins.
The Bear season two is on Disney+ in the UK from 19 July.