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Is ‘The Bear’ Season 3 Thrilling or Tedious? THR TV Critics Discuss

Is ‘The Bear’ Season 3 Thrilling or Tedious? THR TV Critics Discuss

ANGIE HAN: Reports about the death of the monoculture notwithstanding, for the past few years it’s seemed the one show everyone could agree on was FX/Hulu’s The Bear. Critics loved it! So did awards voters! Even its viewership numbers were high, indicating that regular people who are neither were watching too!

Then came season three.

It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say people have turned on it completely. But the tenor of the conversation has shifted. The voices arguing that The Bear is bad now, or that it always has been, are getting louder — and even its defenders tend to concede that this batch of episodes is more, um, challenging than previous ones were. It’s heavy on tone poems and recursive montages and excavations of trauma, and lighter than ever on warmth (with exceptions, like the stellar Tina flashback episode) and humor (give or take the occasional Fak Brothers hijinks). Carmy’s mental health seems to have backtracked or gotten stuck in place, and arguably taken the show’s entire emotional landscape with it.

I’m generally wary of assuming that a story’s protagonist is a stand-in for its creator, and to be clear, I don’t entirely think that’s the case here either. But it’s also difficult not to see the restaurant’s growing pains echoed in the show’s. Just as Carmy keeps reinventing his menu in some punishing but impossible pursuit of excellence, The Bear seems to keep pushing itself further and further toward some prestige-y sense of “artsiness.”

All that said: I still liked this season more than not. And I’ll always appreciate a show taking big ambitious swings, even if not all of them pay off. If nothing else, it’s left me curious about what evolution The Bear might undergo next. But what about you? It sounded like you anticipated some of this backlash already in your review, but do you think it’s become too harsh?

DANIEL FIENBERG: In my review, I said that the new season was, on an episode-for-episode basis, as good as the first two seasons, but I very quickly acknowledged that overall it was a more frustrating season. As you note, it’s a little short on the warmth that more frequently poked through in the earlier seasons, and the humor has become more localized to specifically designed “comic relief” characters or interludes. That’s not what you’d normally expect from a show that has been classified, for awards purposes, as a “comedy.” 

Plus, there’s no question that the series’ propulsive narrative drive occasionally shifted into neutral across these 10 episodes — or possibly even reverse. After all those episodes of transforming the eatery from a chaotic greasy spoon with an Italian beef specialization into a chaotic fine dining restaurant, everybody (or everybody other than Carmy) is realizing that the money (or at least the soul) is in being a chaotic greasy spoon with an Italian beef specialization — even though that restaurant was hemorrhaging money? 

So I didn’t revolt against the show this season, but if others have, that’s not a surprise. People watch TV shows because they want to enjoy TV shows, which is part of why I was actually a bit shocked that The Bear became a smash hit; my initial assumption was that the high-intensity experience of being crammed into a claustrophobic kitchen would trigger PTSD or general discomfort from as many viewers as found joy.

I would never tell anybody they were wrong to respond in the way they did, nor do I really have any sense of whether the “backlash” is widespread or very limited but vocal. What I do think, though, is that most of the things this season that have sparked an absence of joy are intentional.

But, like, does that matter? I can argue that the season is stuck in a “rut” because its characters are stuck in a rut, and that its characters are stuck in a rut because the man they’re following is troubled in a way that he continues to be forced to confront. And a fully reasonable retort would be: “Yes, but we already knew Carmy was traumatized by Joel McHale, and that he has certain traits that link him to the threads of mental illness that run through his family, but weren’t we led to believe that The Bear wasn’t just another tortured genius antihero show?”

And I can say, “Yes, but I think it’s often beautifully made.” But if it’s not your jam, or not the jam you wanted it to be, you’re not wrong.

HAN: I agree that whether you like these episodes or not, you’re not “wrong”; people are allowed to feel however they want to feel. But it’s fascinating to me how much this season seems to resist the easy, likable, crowd-pleasing route in favor of stranger, more difficult and often more frustrating ones. At times, it almost feels like it’s daring you not to like it.

The show’s always gotten a lot of praise for its audaciousness — recall the breathless raves for “Review,” the one-take episode from season one, or for one-off detours like last season’s “Honeydew” and “Forks.” But season three tries even harder to thwart your hopes and subvert your expectations. Oh, you’re eager to dive right back into the muck? Have a meditative half-hour previously-on montage instead. You’re touched by the mutually respectful bond between Carmy and Syd (Ayo Edebiri)? Here’s an entire season of Syd chafing under his dictatorial “non-negotiables.” (At least she gets to meet Will Poulter’s Luca — for my money, she has more promising romantic chemistry with him than she ever did with Carm.) You’re dying to know what happens next? Let’s instead spend most of our time reflecting on the past.

I do not think The Bear has lost its sense of vision. I do, however, think the series has lost a certain sense of vibrancy. Yes, season one could be stressful and sad. But it also felt lively, with the staff interacting with the customers and screaming at each other in the kitchen. While I don’t know Chicago well enough to speak to the show’s authenticity, it felt rooted in a specific culture and community. Season two was more insular, but the race to open the restaurant lent it a sense of momentum and wide-open possibility.

Season three feels, by comparison, dead inside. This is not necessarily a criticism! It’s a valid creative choice that reflects Carmy’s own troubled mental state — which, as you pointed out, has been a throughline of the series since its very first episode. But I think seasons one and two left people expecting the TV equivalent of a hearty beef sandwich, and instead season three showed its hungry diners a thimbleful of deconstructed mirepoix broth (or whatever that dish Fak failed to serve was). Either could be delicious. But if you’re expecting one and get the other, you might be inclined to complain.

Which, actually, brings me to my next question: What did you make of this season’s take on the world of fine dining? Do all those cameos make the series feel authentic, or overly worshipful?

FIENBERG: Porque no los dos dot gif, Angie? 

The finale, a veritable avalanche of foodie cameos, was unquestionably overkill in that department, but at the same time it offered a reminder that the path Carmy took didn’t need to be a path of desperation and misery. One legendary chef after another recounted stories of the moments that filled them with joy, that reminded them of why food is nourishing and a root of happiness and connectivity, as Carmy sat and stewed and probably didn’t even recognize that the thing that should be most fulfilling has, instead, become the thing that leaves him most hollow.

Carmy’s mentors included ultra-avuncular Thomas Keller and Olivia Colman radiating kindness and encouragement and love of his craft, and yet he fixates on the one mentor who was horrible, the one mentor who he became instead of following in the more positive footsteps.

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Maybe he realizes by the end of the finale that he’s being consumed by cycles of depression rather than by a hatred of one symbolically detestable man, but maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he realizes by the end of the finale that his talent and his wellness can’t be determined by the text of a single review, or maybe he doesn’t. Probably he doesn’t. We know Carmy well enough at this point to recognize that in a review of 1,000 words of praise, he’ll fixate on the five words of criticism. 

Carmy may be a genius, but the man he has become is a man who actively ignores Sydney and more overtly ignores Tina (Liza Colon-Zayas) and Marcus (Lionel Boyce) and all the other potential geniuses in the kitchen. Because he’s in emotional limbo, he’s left Sydney unable to decide her next step, he’s left Marcus half-finished on his violet dessert and Tina half-finished on her cauliflower entree. He’s made The Bear into a restaurant that wants to be a thing that its clientele and its legacy don’t want it to be. 

He’s such a mess that for some reason he can’t even pronounce wagyu properly, or maybe that’s just Jeremy Allen White

Carmy needed to wallow — I loved how his entire culinary journey, past and present and future, was captured in the repetitive dream and nightmare that was “Together” — and The Bear needed to wallow in order to pivot the character and his restaurant and the show toward what will presumably be a home stretch, whether that’s one or two more seasons. He’s trapped in a mindset of non-negotiables and it was going to take him more than three or four episodes to change that mindset, realize his mistakes with Claire and hopefully eventually realize the mistakes he’s been making with Sydney and the rest. 

But if you’re all, “Wait, wasn’t all of that part of the first two seasons and wasn’t this repetitive, then?” I can’t disagree. Well, I can disagree. I just won’t tell you you’re wrong.

HAN: I’d probably be a bit more sold that Carmy needed this much wallowing if this weren’t the same series that suggested Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) could permanently transform his entire outlook on life over a single week in “Forks.” (Maybe this show just has a weird relationship with time in general; I was also baffled by the speed of Tina’s morning routine in “Napkins.”)

But I am generally sympathetic to the idea that change is hard and rarely linear, and that growth feels more earned when we can fully understand what it took to get there. Because yes, while we can and should discuss this season on its own merits, it’s also going to be worth revisiting it some day in the context of the entire series. On the whole, the third season was one I admired more than enjoyed, for all the reasons discussed above. And obviously, we can’t know yet how or if the character development of season three — or lack thereof — might pay off in season four or beyond.

But even season three’s less popular choices have reaffirmed for me that the people behind this show know what they’re trying to do, and are willing to make some big moves to get there. I can’t not be intrigued by what that kind of approach might mean as Carmy, hopefully, finally moves forward, and The Bear along with him.

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