‘The Bear’ Season 3 Review: Is It Worth It?

Are Chef Carmy’s outsized expectations worth the chaos they cause? One thing is clear: as the show evolves into more of an ensemble piece, 'The Bear' maintains its own standard of excellence.

Ayo Edebiri, Jeremy Allen White and Abby Elliott in The Bear. Courtesy of FX

Chef Carmen Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) insists that his restaurant’s menu change every night. This, he says, is non-negotiable, a standard of excellence that will earn them a Michelin star. This decision causes chaos in his kitchen, with his servers, with his finances. It is the root cause of all of the restaurant’s biggest problems. Whether or not this extra effort is truly worthwhile is hard to judge. We can’t eat the food, we can only watch the show. But for The Bear, a series that seems to evolve with each episode, the ever-changing menu is an unqualified success. The third season of the half-hour drama (screw the “comedy” Emmys classification) continues to meet Chef Carmy’s own ridiculous expectations, innovating with passion and ambition.

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The season opens with an unorthodox chapter, a lyrical and non-linear exploration of Carmy’s journey as a chef. It’s a life defined by rigorous repetition, a relentless pursuit of perfection in his work that runs parallel to his stubborn inability to manage his personal life. Nothing, strictly speaking, happens in this episode. It’s an overture, an appetizer, and perhaps the best argument for FX releasing the season all at once rather than a week at a time. This is not a series in which every episode is a complete meal. Some are courses, some are components, but “Tomorrow,” the opener, is the first whiff of air when you walk in the door, the ambient music, the restaurant lighting. If this show were released weekly and this was all you were served on night one, you’d still be starving. But as the tone-setter for a larger meal, it’s divine.

The rest of the season works variations on the different tones and tempos that The Bear has offered so far. “Doors” is a symphony of chaos, presenting the frantic pace of the restaurant’s daily operation. “Family” features some broad comedy from goofy server Neil (Matty Matheson) and his brothers Ted (Ricky Stafferi) and Sammy (the show’s goofiest cameo, which I don’t dare spoil). “Napkins” is a study of Chef Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas), a sort of companion piece to last year’s Richie-focused masterpiece “Forks” that shows her path towards peace and purpose at the restaurant. (It’s also star Ayo Edebiri’s directorial debut.) 

What binds these ingredients together is not just the striking photography, imaginative editing, and compelling performances, but The Bear’s unrelenting humanity. For all its stress-inducing freakouts, The Bear is a deeply empathetic show about the quiet little journeys of every person in the titular restaurant. Most characters do not get an episode of their own, or a singular defining moment. Instead, they’re all in motion all the time, their subplots all orbiting the unstable gravity of a workplace that could be gone tomorrow.

Carmy is coping with the destruction of his relationship with Claire (Molly Gordon) and taking stock of the years he’s spent working towards the dream/nightmare he’s currently living. Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) is trying to decide whether she wants to commit to a long-term partnership with a brilliant basket case with whom she has nightly screaming matches. Natalie (Abby Elliott) is about to give birth to a daughter and is afraid of passing down the Berzatto family’s mental health woes. Richie’s (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) ex-wife is getting remarried, and Marcus (Lionel Boyce) is developing a new dessert in honor of his late mother.

Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Liza Colón-Zayas and Lionel Boyce in The Bear. Courtesy of FX

Each of these stories is spread out over the course of the ten-episode season, a glacial pace considering how little actual plot each entails, but it works because time spent with these characters is always rewarding. As famous as The Bear became during its first season for its intense kitchen sequences, creator Christopher Storer and his collaborators are just as deft at moments of quiet, peaceful intimacy. It’s deeply concerned with the bond between people with common goals or common blood, with good but wounded people struggling hard not to project their hurt onto others. The characters are in constant conflict, but there is rarely an antagonist to speak of, unless you count trauma and time.

This season of The Bear drifts further away from even having a central protagonist, with even more screen time being spread out amongst the ensemble. From the established leads to the less celebrated supporting cast to the flashy guest stars, everyone delivers to the extent that it’s difficult to name a standout. There’s no wrong answer here, but I’ll single out Abby Elliott, whose spotlight episode “Ice Chips” lets her flex dramatic muscles worthy of the show’s most decorated co-stars. But it’s not only the meaty and showy parts that make The Bear feel special. Lionel Boyce as Marcus is not the kind of role that attracts awards attention, but it’s quiet, honest, and real

Even more than the performances or the proportion of naturalistic crosstalk to carefully curated dialogue, what makes The Bear feel so compellingly real is its sense of time. The Bear isn’t shapeless, but it rarely fits neatly into the structure of an episode of television, much less the same structure week to week. The story does not move at the pace of a story, it moves at the pace of life — sometimes plodding, sometimes breathless, but usually both at the same time. It’s beautiful, it’s harrowing, it’ll make you jump for joy and hide under a blanket. It’s the whole thing, the whole meal, with no substitutions permitted or required. 

‘The Bear’ Season 3 Review: Is It Worth It?