The Bear Season 3 is about what’s wrong with The Bear Season 3.

Imagine one day you’re walking past your favorite neighborhood sandwich shop that you’ve been going to for years, only to find it abruptly closed for renovations. Things have been a little different lately: things have gotten a little smoother, a little busier, maybe even a little cleaner, but there’s no sign that such a dramatic change is coming. A little later, it reopens, but the place you used to visit every week is now a fancy restaurant where you can eat at most a few times a year, if you can even get a table. The food may be better, or at least everyone seems to think so, but something that was once a comforting element has been replaced by a rare luxury.

Now imagine the same thing happening to your favorite art form: television. What you used to watch every week—the same Battime, the same Batchannel—has become an irregular occurrence, released on a bunch of different platforms in an ever-changing array of formats, with shorter seasons and longer waits between them. The characters whose lives moved alongside yours, who aged at the same rate, even celebrated holidays at the same time as you, now show up in erratic but intense bursts, like old friends you haven’t seen in years, and while it’s always nice to see each other again, you can’t help but feel like you’ve missed out on something crucial, the sense of connection that comes from simply being there.

The bear sits at the intersection of these two phenomena: a show about a Chicago beef restaurant turned upscale eatery, and a story about the daily experiences of blue-collar workers filtered through an arthouse lens. In the FX series’ third season, Jeremy Allen White’s Carmen Berzatto has finally realized his plan to transform his family’s old-school sandwich shop into a destination restaurant where the boundaries of cuisine are pushed further every day. The atmosphere is no less chaotic than when chef Carmy took over in Season 1, a rising star of the culinary world abruptly handed the keys to a greasy, crumbling institution, but now the driving force isn’t just making enough sandwiches to keep the lights on. It’s making art, creating groundbreaking dishes whose reputations extend far beyond River North. And like the Bear, Carmy’s fashionably minimalist replacement for the Original Beef of Chicagoland, The bear is not the place it was when we first arrived. As Carmy struggles to train a team used to slinging sandwiches at top speed in the intricacies of haute cuisine, the show struggles with its own problems, its ambitions reaching beyond its ability to fulfill them. The further The bear As the season progresses, the characters’ dilemmas begin to resemble their own more and more, until it feels like an extended exploration of the reasons why the show no longer works as well as it once did.

At the beginning of The bearIn the third season, Carmy scribbles down a catalogue of “non-negotiables,” a list of immutable principles by which his restaurant will be run. And while many of them are specific to the show’s milieu—“shirts ironed to perfection” and, above all, “tear down all boxes before throwing them in the trash”—his bulleted list includes several items you might expect to see on a writers’ room whiteboard: “push boundaries”; “details matter”; “less is more.” Just as Carmy declares that the Bear will never repeat a dish, The bear seems increasingly determined to change the format with each new episode. And just as Carmy’s mandate seeks innovation at the expense of a strong core identity, the series now seems to value innovation over cohesion. It deviates from the baseline so often that it’s no longer clear what the series wants to be.

The bear is a back-of-house show, far more concerned with the creative process than the final product. When Carmy proclaims that his goal is to earn the restaurant a Michelin star “so they can see what we’re made of,” it falls to his second-in-command, Sydney, to ask, “Who is ‘she’?” Despite Carmy’s efforts to insist that every dish be perfect, every floral arrangement in the dining room be placed just so, he seems almost completely disconnected from the experience of the people actually eating his food. He shrugs off requests to tailor his menu to their tastes, even going so far as to inquire whether a guest’s aversion to mushrooms stems from a food allergy (grudgingly accommodated) or mere preference (no dice). He’s too wrapped up in his art to notice whether his customers are actually enjoying themselves, let alone the practicalities of spending $11,000 on a certain kind of butter simply because it’s “the best.” His list of non-negotiables may include an atmosphere of “vibrant cooperation,” but the more the pressure mounts, the more fixated he becomes on making sure everything is done the right way—his way.

While Carmy strives for excellence at all costs, the Bear is sinking deeper and deeper into a financial hole. The only part of the business that actually turns a profit is the modest takeout window, where a single beleaguered employee still serves up the old-fashioned beef sandwiches that made the place famous. The guests aren’t the ones Carmy bullies his staff into trying to impress—not the kind of people who can easily fork over $175 plus tips for the Bear’s prix fixe menu, assuming they even come in—but they’re dedicated enough to stick around for the food they love, even if they have to eat it at a picnic table in the parking lot. The bear‘s third season also serves up some red meat, mostly in the form of extended comedic interludes built around the bumbling Fak family. But while the bit in which the brawny, boisterous Neil takes a turn at serving, only to pour a delicate broth for two hungry guests and then promptly return the filled bowls to the kitchen, is a gag worthy of the Marx Brothers, the Faks’ clowning grows increasingly forced as the season goes on, especially as it becomes clear that it’s there merely to buy time for the show’s more somber indulgences. If an episode like “Napkins,” a delicate outlier that fleshes out the backstory of the Bear’s sous chef, Tina, comes as an elegantly plated appetizer, the season’s slapstick digressions are like raw steaks tossed from the back of a moving truck, grudging concessions to an audience that still needs the show but no longer respects it.

The bear is still a good show, and sometimes a great one. But it’s also a show that’s increasingly obsessed with its own ambitions, and at risk of losing sight of what makes great television. The best thing you can say is that it’s aware of that risk. Creator Christopher Storer, who wrote or directed nine of the season’s 10 episodes, has crafted a story about a self-proclaimed visionary whose narrow-minded devotion to his own unique vision risks destroying the very thing he’s worked so hard to create, so obsessed with his image as an artist that he’s lost touch with the reason people go out to eat in the first place. Sure, they want something new and exciting, to expand their palates and challenge their preconceptions. But they also just want a meal, something that will leave them fuller and happier than when they walked in the door. In the Season 3 finale, legendary chef Thomas Keller explains to a young Carmy that the purpose of making food is to nourish, not just the people who consume it, but also those who make it and provide the ingredients for it, a chain of care that goes all the way back to the soil. Fans who are in tune with The bear‘s finer qualities love to mock the Syd-Carmy shippers who demand simpler pleasures, and while giving in to that particular demand would be disastrous, they’re not wrong to feel the need for something simply satisfying. There’s a place for elevated and challenging fare, but not if it leaves you unsatisfied. Sometimes you just want a sandwich.

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