The Bear season three review – unbelievably frustrating | Television & radio

I am going to be hard on The Bear, because when the show is flying, it really is wonderful television. If the first season cooked up a solid base for the drama, returning troubled chef Carmen Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) to The Beef, the hectic Chicago sandwich shop owned by his recently deceased brother Mikey (Jon Bernthal), the second season refined it beautifully. Few shows earn the privilege of having episodes that become widely known by their titles, but season two’s Forks and Fishes did just that. They were special, inventive and shaped the sometimes operatic emotional register of the series into clever, compelling drama. Little wonder it has become such a pop culture phenomenon, churning out superstars quicker than plates on the pass.

As a result, it returns for a third season under another level of expectation. But pressure is one of The Bear’s main themes. It squeezes its characters, presses down on them, and we witness the results, as some thrive in crisis mode and some collapse completely. Season two ended with Carmen finally closing down (most of) The Beef and preparing to open his own far fancier restaurant, The Bear. But the return of his professional ambitions come at a price: he stampedes towards greatness at the cost of his two most solid relationships, sabotaging his closeness with girlfriend Claire (Molly Gordon) and the newly reformed “Cousin” Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach).

Season three, then, finds itself in a tricky spot: if Carmen largely gets what he wants, professionally at least, where can the story go? It doesn’t quite find a solution. The stakes are a little lower. There are still money issues, albeit of a different flavour. Later episodes are threaded together by an imminent restaurant review, which may make or break the place. The kitchen is still run by a “dysfunctional family”, so much so that one character tells another character to “shut the fuck up” at least once an episode, often much more. But seasons three and four reportedly filmed back-to-back, and you can tell, because for long periods, these 10 episodes feel like half of something. It is as if The Bear has done what the biggest blockbuster movie franchises sometimes do, and split its later instalments in two. I found the ending to be unbelievably frustrating.

One of the many discussions that regularly emerges around The Bear is that it keeps winning awards in the “comedy” category, which is hilarious because it is so resolutely unfunny. It’s about death and despair, as much as it is about food. Here, the Fak family get a long-running subplot that seems to be a concession towards a lighter mood, but it goes on for too long and interrupts the weightier themes that are desperate to push to the front. Gallows humour is one thing, but slapstick surely belongs elsewhere.

Sidelined … Ayo Edebiri as Sydney Adamu in season three. Photograph: FX Networks

The season opens with an episode that sets the tone. In a largely dialogue-less collage of all Carmen’s previous kitchen roles, we get to see what made him the chef he is today. There is a circular feel to the season overall, which keeps spiralling back to the idea that Carmen may be doomed to repeat his mistakes. That makes for another bind: dogged repetition is the enemy of convincing storytelling. It needs to move. This means the excellent Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) is somewhat sidelined, both in the storyline and, to some extent, the season. What a waste.

That said, when it has its moments, The Bear is still one of the finest shows on television. If this were a review of individual episodes, then two are knockouts. The first is Napkins, directed by Edebiri, in which we find out how line cook turned sous chef Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) made her way into the messy world of the Berzatto family. The second is Ice Chips, essentially a two-hander and a truly beautiful one at that, where Carmy’s sister Nat (AKA Sugar, played by Abby Elliott) goes into labour. To reveal more about either would spoil them, but both conduct their own inventories of the past and hone The Bear’s sentimentality into a raw and tender magnificence.

In The Bear, everyone is either screaming at one another to “shut the fuck up” (nobody does) or insisting how much they love each other. These extremes provide an apt summary of season three, which wobbles between the two states. This is the kind of show that elicits a deep fondness and, even in its flaws, I feel very fond of The Bear. But in truth, this is not The Bear at its best.

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