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In ‘The Bear’ Season 3, experimentation is still on the menu

Jeremy Allen White a Carmy Berzatto.
FX
Jeremy Allen White a Carmy Berzatto.

Season 3 of The Bear is out now from FX on Hulu. The review below contains details from the season.

The Bear is a show about scars and ghosts, because it is in so many ways a show about consequences and grief. Not all the scars are visible, of course, and not all the ghosts are dead.

At the opening of the excellent third season, we find Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) alone in the dark, the morning after his new restaurant's tryout night, staring at a gnarly old scar on his palm and thinking about people who aren't there. People who have died, but also people he's hurt, people he doesn't know how to talk to, people who have changed him for good and for ill.

The episode unfolds from there not in a straight line but as a looping, layered look at multiple pieces of Carmy's life that sit on top of each other like a stack of pancakes you can cut through and expose all at once. One is this difficult morning after he got locked in the walk-in fridge. Some involve events in his family — Mikey's death and telling Nat goodbye when he moved to New York years ago. Some involve Claire (Molly Gordon), whom he kisses in quick flashes. But mostly, we watch Carmy's experiences in various kitchens in Chicago, on the east and west coasts, and in Copenhagen. We watch him and Luca (Will Poulter) working for chef Terry (Olivia Colman). We see him learn from chefs Daniel Boulud, Rene Redzepi and Thomas Keller, all of whom appear as themselves. We see more of the damage that was inflicted on him by the cruel New York chef played by Joel McHale.

While it doesn't offer up the same pleasures we're used to, like seeing this big cast yell back and forth, the episode is an example of The Bear's greatest strength. Despite its success, the show is creatively restless, always. This is not a conventional episode of TV, let alone a conventional season opener. It's moody and disorienting, it doesn't advance the plot a whole lot, and it may take a couple of viewings to understand where in time you're located. If episodes dropped one at a time, this opener might leave an audience cold. But with multiple episodes available at once, including a much more typical second episode where the restaurant is trying to get ready for its real opening night, creator Christopher Storer and the rest of the creative team can get away with this kind of experimentation, and so they do it.

Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Cousin Richie.
FX /
Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Cousin Richie.

The same is true of the episodes that step away from Carmy and Sydney and Richie, even though those three characters are so beloved and mesmerizing. There aren't any epics in this season on the scale of season two's brilliant "Forks" and "Fishes," but there are more intimate opportunities to visit with the rest of the cast. Ayo Edebiri (who plays Sydney) directs "Napkins," a standout episode about Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas). Not for nothing, "Napkins" also includes the strongest scene the show has ever done with Mikey (Jon Bernthal), The Bear's greatest ghost of all. Abby Elliott and Jamie Lee Curtis hold down "Ice Chips," in which Nat's mother, Donna — also, in her way, a ghost — is not the person Nat wants on hand as she prepares to give birth, but Donna is who she's got.

It's this constant push-push-push against the obvious next move that makes The Bear compelling. What earned so much praise in the first season was the grimy, loving clamor of The Beef, so they abandoned it for the team's pivot to fine dining in season 2, which opened up new possibilities for stories about learning and self-actualization.

And now that The Bear exists and can serve food, the focus shifts again. Because what's at stake, particularly in the late part of this third season, are questions about creativity and excellence. There is, in the real world, a push to de-romanticize abusive behaviors that have long been written off as part of an initiation process that one has to endure in order to become great. And The Bear dives headlong into its own exploration of toxicity and hard work without ever stepping over the line into didactic posturing. Instead, it goes back to those two big weapons that give it the gravity and emotional scale it maintained over its first two seasons: scars and ghosts.

Carmy's industry ghosts are good and bad. He has worked for Chef Terry, who is kind and creates an environment of high standards but humane treatment — and her restaurant, Ever, transformed Richie's life, too. But Carmy has also worked for the abusive nightmare of a boss played by Joel McHale. The scars from that job are in his anxiety and self-flagellation, but also in little habits like the neatly cut labeling tape that he attaches to deli containers and the handles of saucepans.

It would be lovely to believe Carmy could never become Joel McHale. But when he unveils his list of "non-negotiables" for The Bear, it's less the items on the list and more the way he delivers the list — as an impatient authoritarian — that seems ominous. He has become obsessed with getting a Michelin star, and declares that the menu will change every single day, which upends the economics of the business and the work that's done by Sydney, Richie, Nat, Tina, Marcus, and everybody else who works there.

Ayo Edebiri as Sydney Adamu.
FX /
Ayo Edebiri as Sydney Adamu.

This is also a very strong season for Sydney and Richie. Edebiri perfectly captures Sydney's hesitation about attaching herself to Carmy as his obsessive focus on quality and achievement turns self-destructive. And Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who discovered he was a born fine-dining service guy when he staged at Ever, finds himself trying to protect his dining room and his right to run it. It's their complicated love for Carmy (and each other), as well as his for them, that makes all of this feel so emotionally urgent. The idea of Carmy becoming one of Sydney's unhappy ghosts, after all, is almost too much to take, and the lack of reconciliation after the bitter fight between Carmy and Richie through the walk-in door casts a pall over any success they have together. (The character of Claire, who felt under-written even last season, is a far less effective emotional lever, particularly now, when she is almost entirely talked about but never seen.)

There are, of course, things in the season that don't work quite so well, though most of them feel less like failure than like excess. There is a little too much of the Fak family, headed by Neil, played by Matty Matheson. Neil is a brilliant creation, played brilliantly, and when he's part of conversations with the whole staff, his presence is critical to getting the balance of those scenes right. But as the Faks multiply over the course of this season, they get a little too silly, and they also are the source of the only guest appearance out of many big ones in the show's history that has ever tipped over into feeling like stunt casting — into seemingly doing a thing just to do it.

Matty Matheson as Neil Fak.
FX /
Matty Matheson as Neil Fak.

We are also getting diminishing returns by the end of this season from the frequent appearances by real chefs. A lesson to Carmy from Thomas Keller goes on for too long, and a late-season gathering of real chefs, while it has its delights, also feels indulgent. It's understandable that the show wants to make a spectacle of how beloved it is by the real food world and how much star chefs want to elbow their way into episodes. But unsurprisingly, The Bear gets its best acting work from actors. And detouring into celebrity cameos is tricky at a moment when time with the main cast feels precious and the story is gaining steam.

Speaking of which: This is not really a season; it is half a season. It ends with a cliffhanger, "To Be Continued." It doesn't resolve either the main plot threads or the emotional tangles that have been built over these ten episodes. That's a choice the people behind the show have made, and it candidly seems like a perilous one for a project that presumably won't come back for many months. Because of the exceptional acting and writing, they will perhaps get away with the anticlimax of it (so different from the big thunderclaps of the last two seasons ending), but it might have worked better to give some resolution to something.

All in all, though, this remains a tremendously creative, audacious show that is full of pleasures both expected and unexpected. The fact that it doesn't repeat its successes as much as it tries to reshape itself each time around is perhaps like Carmy's ever-changing menu: It can lead to a certain number of misfires, but it's a way to show and share all that you can do.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.