Squawk Box: Winning Time/The Bear Season 2

Once again, TikTok annoyed me so much with clip after clip after clip of a show that I finally sat down and watched it. Before that, I had no real interest in watching Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, because honestly, I'll watch basketball, but it's never really been my primary sport. Growing up, one couldn't escape Michael Jordan and The Bulls and I remember Magic Johnson having to retire from playing due to contracting HIV, but outside of that, the NBA didn't really have that much of a hold on me. I knew all the names (Sean Kemp, Charles Barkley, Dikembe Mutumbo, etc) I can't say that I watched that many of the games. 

(I'm also convinced that the NBA used to be better back then, in the way that older, crusty types always are- but I still hold to the notion that they should bring back the Super Sonics, damn it.)

The first season of  Winning Time focuses on the 1979-1980 NBA season, where new owner Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) takes control of the team and recruits young phenom out of Michigan State, Magic Johnson (Quncy Isaiah). Everyone thinks that Buss is kind of crazy: the NBA isn't doing that well in the grand scheme of things and Buss is a talker who plays fast and loose with his money-- transferring ownership of the team to his ex-wife and using his Mom, Jessie (Sally Field) as an accountant on the side. The executives already in place on the team, Jerry West (Jason Clarke) and Clare Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann) think he's not going to last, but Buss brings in a new coach, Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts) to reinvent the offense, and hopes that his prized new recruit, Magic Johnson, will prove the doubters wrong.

Magic Johnson arrives in Los Angeles and runs into headwinds almost immediately. He's a young guy on a team dominated by established players like Norm Nixon (DeVaughn Nixon) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) so he's got to find his way there, but the show doesn't shy away from the racial dynamics of the NBA at the time either- where audiences have a definite preference for white stars like Larry Bird- he's also a young guy far from home and struggling to live up to the new temptations of fame and family expectations. 

Gradually, both the team and Buss come together, and when their Coach, McKinney has to be replaced midseason following a bike accident by Paul Westhead (Jason Segal) who eventually winds up co-coaching with Pat Riley (Adrien Brody) and they get the team to the NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, where Magic has to face down his idol, Julius Erving (James Lesure) and they win the title- though a showdown with Magic's college nemesis Larry Bird, remains for the future.

For someone who doesn't watch a lot of basketball, there's certainly a fusion of pop culture with sports that this show encapsulates more or less perfectly. Whether the Showtime Lakers represented the start of that as a phenomenon, I don't know-- but I'm willing to bet they probably did, in a way. We see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar filming his scenes in Airplane. We meet Spencer Haywood, who's with Iman (later married to David Bowie) at the time. The Laker Girls? Guess who one of the first Laker Girls was? That's right-- Paula Abdul! Even names I'm only vaguely familiar with pop up-- Jerry Tarkanian is vetted as a prospective coach. Adrien Brody plays Pat Riley-- yes, the same Pat Riley that won all the titles with the Miami Heat. Ultimately, I think that's what this show so entertaining-- there are all kinds of people that pop up in this story that you weren't expecting and it's anchored by an incredible cast (John C. Reilly is fantastic as Jerry Buss), The whole thing is shot in a grainy way that makes it seem like you're looking at the 70s and thankfully, is properly lit to boot. My Grade: **** out of ****. Thanks, TikTok, you've dragged me into another show.

I reviewed Season One of The Bear in September of last year and honestly, my overall thoughts on it at the time were that it was good and seemed to do an excellent job at capturing the breakneck pace and barely controlled chaos of a working kitchen quite well. That season ended with them closing down the old restaurant and preparing to open a new one, The Bear and that's what Season 2 is all about, more or less.

However-- I don't usually do season-by-season reviews of shows. For a start, I just don't have that kind of time and I'm not a professional critic, so I don't care that much about it. And for two, I just prefer to consume any given show in its entirety if I'm going to get into season-by-season comparisons of a show. But all that being said, The Bear takes such a giant step upward in this season, I felt like I had to make an exception for it. Don't get me wrong: Season 1 of The Bear was very good, but it felt, at times, like it was more about a portrait of the chaos than the people. Season 2 flips the script a little bit and becomes more about the people than the chaos/restaurant- partially that's because the restaurant is closed and most of the season is about getting the new restaurant up and running and whether Season 3 of The Bear changes that dynamic yet again, we'll have to see.

What really took this season up a notch though was that everyone in the cast gets their moment to shine. With the new, higher-end restaurant coming, Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) is now the chef de cuisine and asks Tina (Liza Colon-Zayas) to be her sous-chef, which leads to Tina and Ebra (Edwin Lee Gibson) getting sent to culinary school to up their skills a bit. Tina shines there, Ebra stops going-- but eventually comes back to the restaurant to take over their sandwich takeout window. Marcus (Lionel Boyce) is tasked with making three new desserts for the restaurant and gets sent to Copenhagen to work with Luca (Will Poulter) a dessert chef who trains him.

Natalie (Abby Elliot) reluctantly comes aboard as project manager and they go to Uncle Jimmy (Oliver Platt) to get funds to get renovations going. As happens with any renovation they run into problems along the way that they have to overcome with the help of Fak (Matty Matheson, who is actually a Chef IRL), their handyman, but eventually, things start to come together- even as Sydney has to confront the doubts of her father (Robert Townsend) about her career choice and Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) reconnects and falls for one of his childhood friends, Claire (Molly Gordon.)

Two episodes to me, stand out: the first is 'Forks' where Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) gets sent to Ever, another high-end restaurant to learn how to 'stage' properly. It's Richie, so he's offended at first and doesn't want to be there, but because he's stubborn and wants to prove people wrong he goes anyway and ends up learning about himself and finding a new purpose and healthier way to direct his energy-- I've seen reviews that cast doubt on his sudden Pauline conversion to the cause of being a better person, but given his arc from the last season, where he's generally a pain in the ass, selling cocaine in the alley, that kind of thing- this episode feels earned. It's exciting to watch him understand how to do the job and more importantly, realize that he can do it well. (Also: Olivia Colman shows up in this episode and she's not in it for very long, but holy shit does that woman absolutely own every scene she's in.)

The second, is 'Fishes', which is a flashback episode to five years before, when Carmy returns from Copenhagen to spend Christmas with his family and friends. First of all: the cast in this episode alone is ludicrous. Jamie Lee Curtis shows up as their Mom, Donna, Sarah Paulson is cousin Michelle, John Mulaney plays Stevie her boyfriend, Bob Odenkirk is Lee, Donna's boyfriend, Gillian Jacobs returns as Tiffany, Richie's then-wife and Jon Bernthal reprise his role as Mikey, Carmy's brother. I don't think you can name a single episode of television that has ever had that much talent in one episode. It was incredible--but my love for this episode is twofold-- one, anyone who has ever had a family Christmas before will instantly recognize the chaos of the entire episode-- and if your family tends towards fistfights and drinking too much, you will be triggered. They capture it that perfectly. Two, we gain insight into the chaos of the first season here-- chaos is just the environment that Carmy has grown up in his entire life. It is part of the reason why he is the way he is and why he eventually (and foolishly) convinces himself he's not allowed to have anything good in his life and gets called out for that by Richie in the finale.

I loved every minute of this. It was truly some of the best writing and the best television I've seen in a while and hopefully, the strikes in Hollywood end soon, and these writers can get paid what they deserve (because holy shit, do they deserve more after this season) and they can get to work on Season 3 because I want to see what happens next. My Grade: **** out of ****

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