The merits of The Bear’s second season have already been picked over like a lovingly assembled charcuterie board—by us as much as anyone else. Still, one morsel has remained oddly untouched, which, like a sprig of rosemary or pot of honey, may not be the flashiest item in the bunch, but elevates the whole array subtly and importantly. That is the decision by showrunners Christoper Storer and Joanna Calo to introduce the pandemic into the background of the story, a move that easily could have come across as jarring and underbaked. Instead, it was handled with the delicate finesse of a Michelin Star chef. (And, yes, I’ll cool it on the food metaphors for a bit.)
No one wants to focus on the existence of the pandemic while watching their favorite shows. Rather, viewers are often looking for a break from the painful ongoing realities of the world (yet another small miracle we should thank film and television writers for). And when pesky real-life issues turn up in our fictional escapes—à la all that cringy Hillary Clinton stuff on Broad City in 2016—it can be best for both the series and audiences alike to move on and pretend it never happened.
Another case in point (and one tackling the actual pandemic): You. I distinctly remember turning into the blinking white guy meme during its third-season premiere in 2021. Joe (Penn Badgley) had just moved to the ritzy suburb of Madre Linda, California, with his wife and newborn son. In his typically snarky voiceover, he profiles the neighborhood’s queen bee (Shalita Grant) by saying, “In August 2020, she had a massive party while the rest of us were home clutching hand sanitizer,” and apparently the whole town got their hands on a secret vaccine meant for the Queen of England and thus were “immune to COVID.”
Looking far beyond how this suggests viewers are to implicitly align themselves with a murderous lunatic on a contentious issue affecting almost the entire global population, it also threw the whole timeline and reality of the show into question. If the gap between seasons two and three lasted approximately the nine-month duration of Love’s (Victoria Pedretti) pregnancy, and now not a single mask is to be seen on the streets (much less in Love’s delivery room), did August 2020 happen in some sort of an alternate reality Joe taps into to make fun of rich people?
Are we meant to believe that these two bitter spouses with a murder problem actually quarantined together? And survived? I had never questioned the convenience of Love suffering from the same killer affliction as Joe, or even their basement fish tank-stalker cage, but this? This was far too much. It made what used to be a silly little diversion—that’s a compliment—feel at once too real and not real enough.
The Bear, however, is the rare series that benefits from this injection of the real, outside world. In an ace montage, there’s an onslaught of headlines about the shuttering of another restaurant due to COVID, with red “permanently closed” labels on Apple Maps and rapidly shuffling “for lease” signs as Sydney scrolls in episode three (“Sundae”) before embarking on her epic Chicago food tour. And it hits as hard as any pre-apocalypse segment. It also serves as a tidy and devastating in memoriam to the dozens of real Chicago restaurants overcome by the joint demands of the pandemic and recession. (The first of these closures shown in said montage—that of a German/Southern-fusion restaurant called Funkenhausen that embodied Syd’s “chaos cooking” ethos—only had its last service in March. So the pain still feels incredibly fresh.)
The pandemic is only explicitly referenced once more in the series, in the excellent episode “Forks.” Richie responds to stage boss Garrett’s (Andrew Lopez) chastising with a retort of “Nice try. You think I don’t know how hard it is hiring people since COVID?” And the dialogue’s effects hang like a specter over the entire season, as they should. While Storer and Calo certainly didn’t need to plop The Bear into our grim reality, even those of us not remotely involved in the restaurant industry get why it’s so hard to open a Michelin-adjacent dining experience right now.
By making this struggle explicit, the show only deepens our empathy (and anxiety) for all that the Berzattos & Co. have to overcome to get this thing off the ground. What’s more, it lets these characters stand in for and pay homage to all the real-life Carmys and Sydneys whose stories may otherwise go untold. It’s a genuinely moving tribute and hopefully one that we’ll start to see more of as other industry-specific shows (à la Superstore, which also introduced the pandemic to great effect in its final season) begin to reckon with the world we live in now.