Review | In its third season, ‘The Bear’ gets avant-garde


Mild spoilers follow for Season 3 of “The Bear.”

A tip creative writing teachers dole out, frequently enough that the advice has become its own cliché, is to avoid ending a story with “and then I woke up.” Not just because it’s clumsy and invalidates much of what came before, but also because the logic of dreams is so loopy and private that it’s (usually) only interesting to the dreamer.

It’s also, of course, exactly the kind of rule ambitious creators love to break. “The Bear,” Christopher Storer’s breakout hit about food — and grief and vocation, perfectionism and mentorship, service and trauma and ego and guilt and repair — went one further: It opened with a dream. Back in 2022, the pilot began with a surrealist sequence in which a tormented young chef named Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) approached and freed a caged bear on the State Street Bridge. I thought back then that it was bold (and maybe a little hokey) to establish a collective unconscious for your show before introducing any actual characters. Or plot.

But these writers weren’t coy. They plunged you right into the show’s messy, broken subtext. The third season, which follows the gang as they try to make the fancy new restaurant a going concern, doubles down on that impulse to throw the viewer into the deep end. “Tomorrow,” the first episode, picks up in the immediate aftermath of friends and family night at the Bear (the restaurant, not the show). And it’s a formally inventive, thoroughly disorienting fever dream every bit as challenging and avant-garde as the dishes in Carmy’s notebook.

In hindsight, the show’s inaugural dive into dreams and dread two years ago doubled as a mission statement for how the show planned to braid Carmy’s talent and plight — in particular, his penchant for sublimating guilt and trauma into culinary brilliance — into a story about the more general torments (and temptations, and thrills) of the restaurant industry. It also threw down a kind of TV gauntlet, more or less announcing the show’s intention to join the likes of semi-trippy classics such as “Northern Exposure,” “Twin Peaks,” “BoJack Horseman,” “The Leftovers” and “The Sopranos.”

But this is a show about how the workers at the Original Beef of Chicago, a hearty sandwich joint with no lofty aspirations, grow — within two sweaty, stressful, only semi-plausible seasons — into proud and ambitious cooks gunning for a Michelin star. The pilot and “Tomorrow” register that dizzying trajectory by using dreamwork very differently.

The show’s opening nightmare was about as subtle as an Italian beef sandwich. The titular bear is a big, loud, obvious metaphor. Sure, it stands for Mikey (Jon Bernthal), Carmy’s larger-than-life older brother, whose suicide on the bridge forced Carmy to take over the family business. And for Carmy’s panic and regret, which threaten to swallow him whole if he stops repressing for even a second and finally opens up that scary cage. The bear is a figure for the Berzattos’ dysfunction and for the dream he and Mikey shared of opening a place together. Hell and hope bound together. The bear was always also, of course, the restaurant business: a feral industry nominally dedicated to leisure and delight that talks a big game about service and celebration while abusing or underpaying its workers, torturing its geniuses, and driving everyone concerned to bankruptcy and despair.

That’s great stuff. A rich set of thorny contradictions, and “The Bear” excelled at laying them out. It clarified exactly why the staff resented Carmy; why Carmy resented his brother; why his sister, Sugar (Abby Elliott), resented him; and how poor Syd (Ayo Edebiri) — an ambitious but unseasoned chef inspired by Carmy’s talent — had to navigate all of that while figuring out how to lead (and run) a kitchen herself.

The symbolic tensions in “Tomorrow” (and the third season generally) are blurrier. Less schematic and less visceral.

Formally, “Tomorrow,” a nonlinear montage, reproduces the mania with which Carmy strives to review and fix all that went wrong during friends and family night (and his whole life). The list of errors he’s beating himself up for is long: It includes getting locked in the walk-in during service, thereby abandoning his staff; accidentally venting about his girlfriend, Claire (Molly Gordon), to Claire; and screaming at Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). But his main error — as Carmy sees it, with endorsements from both Syd and Uncle Cicero (Oliver Platt) — was chasing a little happiness. Love cost him his focus.

The solutions Carmy comes up with over the course of the night — unilaterally, in his nightlong frenzy to redeem himself — aren’t great. (Or are they?) They include rearranging the table layout (overriding Richie), inventing a slew of exciting new dishes we can’t quite make out (overriding Syd), and penning a list of “nonnegotiable” principles we can’t quite read. He has resolved to come up with an entire new menu every night. They’re going to get a Michelin star.

It’s all a little highhanded. A little avant-garde. A little rarefied and inaccessible (to the startled staff, but also to viewers). Carmy’s old abusive boss in New York (Joel McHale) emerges as the psychic bête noire this season — one he’s in danger of emulating — and that’s a weakness. McHale’s character is no Mikey. His character gets no texture, and his narrative significance is somewhat diluted by all the other (real) chefs with whom Carmy studies. Those cameos can sometimes feel more gimmicky than organic to the story. (Hey, that’s Daniel Boulud!) None of it illuminates Carmy’s character the way the specter of his dead brother did.

But food was never the real subject of this show, and the episode, like the season, improves dramatically whenever it returns to its roots. To Carmy’s conversation with Sugar before his departure for New York. To flashbacks to the fork fight in “Fishes.” To a Carmy who seems at peace shelling peas at an ungodly pace. Or harvesting vegetables. Trauma and hope and theory slip by in waves in “Tomorrow,” scored by an ominous soundtrack so intrusive — and omnipresent, even in scenes not involving Carmy — that it drove me batty.

What “Tomorrow” makes clear is that “The Bear” is getting fancier. The conflicts are getting fiddlier, less primal. So are the techniques. And — like regulars who miss the Beef and feel outclassed by the Bear — I kind of hate the upgrade. My position is Richie’s before “Forks,” the episode last season that made him a believer in haute cuisine. (I remain a skeptic.)

But the best thing about this strange, wonderful little show is that it allows plenty of space for that reaction. “The Bear” has consistently thematized these high-low conflicts without resolving them. Sure, it celebrates the poetry of good food and the talents who cook it. It demonstrates how the constant state of emergency can forge a very particular kind of community. It makes clear why the business attracts damaged people — and why rigor, structure and training might equip them to better navigate chaos. It explores the way stress that you actually choose can drown the bad stuff out, even if you’re shelling peas for hours, and even if your boss whispers “you should be dead” in passing. It makes you feel Carmy’s repulsion at the drippy messes in the old kitchen and the pleasure he takes in cleaning the new one.

Yet if “The Bear” captures the pleasure of calling “Hands!” when you’ve earned the right to create and plate something gorgeous, it also shows chefs vomiting from panic and overwork. Sweating and bleeding in low-end eateries as they try to get orders out. Trembling in high-end ones as they try (and fail) to place a sprig of fennel in precisely the right place, at the correct angle, on a dish. It’s enough to make one a restaurant abolitionist. “No meal is worth this much suffering,” I’ve thought while watching, more than once.

It’s not an original thought. In fact, it’s a slight variation on something Carmy himself says, and which Claire overhears while he’s still trapped in the freezer: “No amount of good is worth how terrible this feels.” And that, I think, is what this show does best: It anticipates and includes your objections. The most compelling case you can make against any position the show seems to endorse — I’d argue, for instance, that fine dining can’t possibly live up to the characters’ fantasies about celebration and community, because it locks the majority out — is made for you. Persuasively, and generously, by the show itself.

I won’t discuss specific plot points for fear of getting into spoilers, and I don’t want to overstate my distaste for the Bear (again, I mean the restaurant, not the show, which remains one of the best things on TV). It’s useful as a loftier space for these fascinating characters to populate with their anxiety and silliness and love and hope. But the new restaurant is less interesting than the Beef because it’s new. No new dish, however experimental, can compete with the ingredients that filthy old kitchen harbored: Mikey’s spiraling self-hatred, Richie’s loyalty, Tina’s (Liza Colón-Zayas) hard love. The Bear matters, of course, but it’s telling that the new season’s two standout episodes, “Napkins” and “Ice Chips,” both of which exceed last season’s “Fishes” in virtuosity, take place outside it. And remind us, amid the swanky new restaurant’s growing pains, of the dexterity and care with which this so-called “workplace comedy” handles more essential (and existential) questions.

I wrote last year that the writers showed unusual moxie by destroying the setting that made their fledgling show iconic. Demolishing the Beef seemed unthinkable after the success of that first season, and I found myself mourning the loss of that cramped kitchen, where so many people’s hopes and needs clashed over the production of sandwiches.

The show’s greatest gambit this time — when it could have embraced an easy and redemptive story, one in which the Bear delivers on its promise to be all things to all people, bringing together the old and the new (honoring Mikey, making space for Syd, and reconciling the regulars and the rich by offering deconstructed mirepoix as well as the OG sandwiches) — is gamely chasing the dysfunction. While still allowing for grace. And growth.

The Bear, 10 episodes, is available on Hulu.



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