‘The Bear’ Takes a Step Down in an Aimless Season 3 That Leans Too Heavily on Star Power: TV Review

The Bear
Courtesy of FX

SPOILER ALERT: The following piece evaluates Season 3 of “The Bear.” While major plot developments — including guest stars — have been withheld to preserve the viewing experience, the network has requested spoiler warnings on all reviews.

The second, much-improved season of “The Bear” was defined by a sense of momentum. Its 10 episodes were transitional in a literal sense, taking the FX half-hour from the closure of a family-owned Italian beef shop in Chicago’s River North to the opening of a fine dining concept in the same space. Staff members developed dishes, supervised build-out and acquired skills with a singular purpose in mind, culminating in a hectic friends-and-family service that saw chef Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) freak out in a freezer.

Season 3 — the first to air after the series swept the comedy categories at this year’s Emmys, cementing its growth from breakout hit to incumbent juggernaut — lacks a similar focus. The Beef has become The Bear; the obvious follow-up question is, what now? Under creator Christopher Storer’s frenetic, dissonant direction, Season 1 captured the grinding stress of an everyday kitchen on the constant verge of chaos. With the cast reunited in the new restaurant, Season 3 does the same for hospitality’s upper echelon, where employees wage a swanlike struggle to deliver a seamless experience to diners despite razor-thin profits and sky-high overhead.

Paired with the creative latitude afforded by its success, this blank slate affords “The Bear” opportunity and risk in equal measure. At times, the absence of a uniting goal allows Storer and co-showrunner Joanna Calo to continue adding texture to the monotony of restaurant life. In a more heartening counterweight to last year’s “Seven Fishes,” this season’s stand-alone flashback gives insight into how sous chef Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) came to join the team, and Carmy’s sister Natalie (Abby Elliott) gets a long-overdue spotlight when she goes into labor with her first child. But not all detours this season are as effective, and without a fixed destination, the main narrative itself can get bogged down with repetition and stunt casting before the season ends with most storylines unresolved. “The Bear” still finds moments of transcendence in its characters’ pursuit of professional excellence and personal growth, yet the show remains more fallible than its rapturous acclaim may imply.

At least the premiere front-loads the season’s weak points, giving viewers an accurate indication of what’s to come. After Carmy’s meltdown, which saw him lash out at his “cousin” turned general manager Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and accidentally alienate his girlfriend Claire (Molly Gordon), the high-strung chef spins out entirely. For the episode’s 37-minute duration, we remain largely in Carmy’s roving mind. He ricochets among his memories, from his New York City stint under a tyrannical boss (Joel McHale) to happier times, either with Claire or in less hostile work environments. The results can be lyrical and lovely; who doesn’t appreciate a glimpse of Copenhagen in warm weather, or a chance to see Olivia Colman’s Chef Terry again? It also tells us nothing we don’t already know, making room for cameos by a slew of culinary legends at the expense of moving the story forward. The structure would work for an extended cold open to establish Carmy’s mood; stretched to an entire episode, it’s an overindulgence. To quote Terry’s mantra, every second counts.

Back in the present tense, Carmy throws himself into the single-minded pursuit of perfection with complete disregard for everyone around him. When her brother insists on changing the menu every day, Natalie — now running the business side — balks at the food waste involved in R&D, and Richie rightfully points out the service side needs to be kept in the loop. Worst of all, chef de cuisine Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) is quietly devastated to watch her onetime collaborator make unilateral edits to the dishes they labored over together. No wonder she can’t bring herself to sign a partnership agreement with a man who won’t treat her like a true partner.

“The Bear” wants to explore how cycles of abuse take hold in pressure cookers like professional kitchens, turning Carmy into the same kind of controlling egomaniac that’s rendered him an anxious mess. But opening the season by centering him so completely doesn’t set “The Bear” up to put Carmy in perspective with necessary distance. It also undoes some of last season’s work to broaden the show into a true ensemble. There are moments where Syd puts Carmy in check. They’re also fleeting, and many, many montages illustrating Carmy’s state of mind end up crowding out more compelling arcs like pastry chef Marcus’ (Lionel Boyce) attempt to channel grief over the loss of his mother into his food. Claire finally gets a handful of solo scenes that highlight her work as a physician, but this season, she’s reduced to what she’s always felt like, even as a more active presence: an abstract figure for Carmy to reminisce about and idealize from afar. As “The Bear” tries to highlight Carmy’s faults, like treating other human beings as props in his ongoing psychodrama, it ends up reproducing them.

This blurred line between commenting on a dynamic and perpetuating it extends elsewhere. In some ways, the season’s sometimes aimless feeling is part of its purpose. Even, and perhaps especially, at successful operations, restaurant life is a grueling hamster wheel. There’s always another fire to put out, another benchmark to achieve. (Richie tells his ex-wife and co-parent that she can visit the restaurant when it’s “perfect,” an impossible aim; Carmy wants a Michelin star, though if The Bear got one, he’d just have to work to maintain it.) The only way out is to quit, as one of Carmy’s mentors opts to in a choice that looms over the season.

Yet maintenance and longevity are less compelling incentives than crossing the finish line of construction. Without an off-ramp in sight, the staff of “The Bear” are left to confront the problems opening didn’t solve, and in fact may exacerbate. Richie is still figuring out how to be a good dad; Sydney is still finding her voice as an artist and leader; Carmy is still a grown man who can’t text a girl he likes. As in Season 1, the sense of stasis is true to life — and frustrating to watch. Without a cathartic climax, even supposed reprieves like deploying the Fak brothers (Matty Matheson and Ricky Staffieri) for comic relief quickly wear thin.

In Season 3, “The Bear” feels torn between two identities: a voice for the world of restaurants at large, and a specific story about a specific set of characters. As the culture’s most zeitgeist-y platform for the industry, there’s a sense of responsibility in how “The Bear” foregrounds the sentimental case for feeding others as a calling, as well as the price paid by those who pursue it. Understandably, if less nobly, the show also seems eager to work the connections its popularity affords. Last season’s chef cameos were largely drawn from local Chicago spots, a tradition continued this year by Kasama’s Genie Kwon. Season 3 expands the talent pool to some of the food world’s leading luminaries, several of whom get extended monologues laying out their guiding philosophies.

At a certain point, such flourishes start to cross the line from enhancing the authenticity of “The Bear” to hindering its core mission. The finale, in particular, affords so much screen time to these visiting dignitaries that most protagonists get short shrift, just as the show should be planting the seeds for next season or at least tying off the one we’ve just watched. When Tina has a heart-to-heart with Carmy’s brother Mikey (Jon Bernthal), whose suicide prompted Carmy’s return to the Midwest, a precisely rendered conversation between two driven, wounded human beings abruptly turns into a broad sermon on why people choose to work in restaurants. As “The Bear” has continued, it’s developed the Berzatto family dysfunction — and its collateral damage to the siblings’ colleagues — enough that there’s no need to rely on such generalizations. For “The Bear,” demonstrating its bona fides is a flex; understanding it doesn’t need them anymore would be a true sign of confidence.

All 10 episodes of “The Bear” Season 3 are now available to stream on Hulu.

From Variety US