“The Bear” Backlash Was Inevitable. Here’s Why It’s Wrong.

Season 3 is a rough one for Carmy, but it's a reminder of what makes the show great

July 1, 2024 7:53 am
"The Bear" season 3
Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) and Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) in season 3 of "The Bear."

Warning: this post contains spoilers for season 3 of The Bear.

It’s a tale as old as time: something — anything! — becomes massively, near-universally popular, and eventually the naysayers come out of the woodwork to announce that actually it’s not that good, that it’s not worth the hype, that anyone who loves it must be some kind of uncultured idiot. On rare occasions, they’re right: the later seasons of Ted Lasso, for example, were insufferable; the show that won our hearts while we were all locked down in the middle of a pandemic lost them as soon as we came out of it because it leaned too hard into its worst impulses and went from sweet to gratingly saccharine. But more often than not, these people are simply trying to be contrarian because they’re snobs who can’t allow themselves to like the same things as the great unwashed. After all, it becomes a lot harder to look down your nose at someone when you’ve got common interests.

It makes sense, then, that we’ve reached that moment for The Bear. After two critically acclaimed seasons — not to mention a few episodes that are already being described as some of the greatest we’ve ever seen on TV — and a slew of honors, its ubiquity at awards shows and on year-end “best of” lists has made it an easy target. Add to that stuff like Jeremy Allen White’s Calvin Klein ad, his new sex-symbol status and the sheer amount of times people keep saying “Yes, chef,” and it’s almost understandable that some would be getting sick of it.

Sure enough, the reviews for season 3 have been harsh. The New Yorker called it “overstuffed and undercooked.” The Guardian dubbed it “unbelievably frustrating,” while Variety said it’s “a step down” and “aimless.” Slate took it one step further, declaring simply that “The Bear Is Not a Good Show.” If they were overreacting any more egregiously, they’d be Carmy himself, tossing gorgeous, meticulously assembled plates of food directly into the trash because they don’t meet his impossible standards.

Before we go any further, no, The Bear‘s third season is not perfect. It relies a little too heavily on stunt casting and real-life chef cameos, it takes some big swings that don’t always connect and, perhaps most glaringly, it doesn’t really offer any resolution, opting to end instead on a cliffhanger and a “To Be Continued” title card. Season 3 and the already-ordered Season 4 were reportedly filmed back-to-back, and knowing that, it’s hard not to look at this latest batch of episodes as one part of a greater whole — a prologue rather than an entire story. But to argue that it’s somehow bad? Insane.

How “The Bear” Achieved “Dudes Rock” Nirvana Via Richie’s Transformation
Season 2’s “Forks” episode is emblematic of this particular brand of non-toxic masculinity

We may not know what the Chicago Tribune review that’ll either make or break The Bear says — though the words that flash across the screen as Carmy reads it (“delicious,” “sloppy,” “confusing,” “innovative,” “excellent” and “disappointing”) seem to imply it’s mixed. We don’t know whether Sydney will wind up accepting another offer and leaving the restaurant. But we sure as hell know how we got here. Season 3 sees Carmy more trapped in his own head than ever before. (As Jeremy Allen White put it in a recent press conference, “Carmy is continuing to do what he does best, I think, which is be incredibly avoidant of all the issues that he has going on.”) He’s determined to never let his team down again after spending The Bear’s opening night trapped in a walk-in freezer at the end of season 2, but he’s too damaged by his own perfectionism and unprocessed grief to realize that he’s failing them every day by barking orders, throwing tantrums and tossing aside any ideas that don’t totally align with his singular vision. He refuses to reach out to Claire, his love interest who overheard him referring to her as a distraction while he was stuck in the freezer, partly because he’s a neurotic mess who can’t bring himself to say he’s sorry but mostly because deep down, he still sort of thinks she’s a distraction. Every second counts, and each one he spends with Claire is another one he could have spent rearranging microgreens on a plate with tweezers.

None of this is exactly fun to watch. No one wants to see a character they’re rooting for regress, especially when that regression involves alienating a bunch of other characters they’re rooting for and in turn hurting their chances at achieving their shared goal. It feels bad, but it’s incredibly honest; personal growth is rarely linear in real life, and The Bear depicts this unflinchingly. Narratively, too, it makes sense — we’re simply too early into Carmy’s story for him to heal completely and get his happy ending. If this were Mad Men, we’d be in that incredibly dark first half of season 4 where Don’s divorced, drinking too much and getting slapped around by prostitutes; we just need to hold on a little longer to get to a brilliant payoff like “The Suitcase.” (That said, while we’re on the topic, having Carmy’s former boss/current nemesis respond to their big confrontation by parroting one of Don Draper’s most famous lines was a rare misstep.)

As viewers, we should know by now that prestige TV’s anti-heroes and otherwise difficult men require patience. In order for them to evolve, we must first sit through their rock-bottoms. It’s par for the course — painful, heartbreaking, frustrating — but when it’s beautifully acted and shot in a compelling way, how can we argue that it’s bad? Carmy’s rock-bottom happens to involve pushing away the Peggy to his Don, and the tension between him and Sydney has undeniably thrown a wrench into the friendship and partnership that drives the whole show. But anyone who can’t understand that the conflict being set up between them is exactly what these two characters need to grow is just mad that they ordered an Italian beef and got a fancy little cube of Wagyu instead.

The Christmas Episode of “The Bear” Is an Instant Classic
The sixth episode of season two, “Fishes,” is one of the best hours of TV from 2023

Besides, having Carmy spend an entire season ignoring everyone who cares about him gave The Bear more time to flesh out some more of its tertiary characters, and the results of those efforts are absolutely stunning. In the excellent “Napkins,” we delve into Tina’s backstory and learn more, through flashbacks, about why she and Mikey were so close. Richie and Natalie, once adversaries, have developed an incredibly sweet friendship, and the moments where the two of them check in on each other, confess their fears or quietly mourn Mikey whenever a painful memory of him hits are some of the most moving scenes of the whole season. And “Ice Chips” is a phenomenal episode that brings the tension between Natalie and her mother Donna (played by Jamie Lee Curtis, who somehow manages to top the career-best performance she gave in last year’s “Fishes“) to a head as she goes into labor and prepares to become a mother herself. It’s a series high point, and one of the best episodes of TV you’ll see this year. Any season that contains it can’t be bad.

Even in the season finale, which is no doubt divisive due to its lack of resolution and seemingly endless parade of real-life chefs paying their respects at Ever’s “funeral” dinner, it’s easy to see why The Bear continues to resonate with so many people. (It’s worth noting that Ever is a real restaurant in Chicago that is not helmed by Olivia Coleman and is, in fact, still open for business.) Listening to these chefs — and even the servers and front-of-house employees Richie chooses to spend the dinner with instead — speak about their craft is electric. You don’t have to care about fine dining to understand their passion; you just have to have something you love doing and a desire to keep doing it for as long as the powers that be will let you. Maybe it’s music or baseball or advertising or, if you’re a real sicko, writing and editing for an online lifestyle publication. Whatever it is, if you’ve got something like that that lights your fire and makes the little hairs on the back of your neck stick up whenever you think about it for too long, The Bear makes you feel seen and understood.

But even if you don’t, The Bear makes you feel seen and understood! That’s the real genius of the show — and especially that conversation between Tina and Mikey this season where they bond over the fact that they’d both rather work a routine job and be surrounded by people whose company they enjoy than spend their time scratching their way toward some lofty ambition. If there’s one thing The Bear goes out of its way to remind us, it’s that all that drive and passion is meaningless if you’re alone. Ultimately, it’s a show about family (blood or chosen, dysfunctional or otherwise) and the beauty of collaboration; if you don’t have anyone around you celebrating the victories and picking you up after the setbacks, pushing you to be your best and looking you square in the face and saying, “I need you to calm down. I’m not asking” when you’re losing your shit, what even is the point? It’s a hard lesson — one that’s about to hit Carmy like a ton of bricks — and it’s what makes The Bear so undeniably great.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.