The Bear season three review: Frenetic drama feels stuck in a loop of its own creation

They say you should never do your supermarket shop while hungry, or your trolley will end up unexpectedly piled high with wallet-draining Calabrian anchovies, Manchego-stuffed olives and crates of quails’ eggs. The same maxim could also be applied to watching Disney+’s The Bear, which returns today for its third series. Do not watch this on an empty stomach, or you might accidentally burn down your house in a misplaced attempt to flambé some cherries into submission.

We return to The Bear, newly reinvigorated as a fine dining establishment, to find it open for business. Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) and Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) continue to balance their working relationship on a knife’s edge, while Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) is settling into working life, even as his domestic existence remains complicated. The family – heavily pregnant Sugar (Abby Elliott) and, non-literal, Uncle Jimmy (Oliver Platt) – continue to support the project, but the stress of the kitchen weighs heavily on Carmy. Having run from the fire of Michelin-starred kitchens before, can Carmy stand the heat this time?

When The Bear was first released, it was described as a “comedy-drama”. The credentials of its creator, Christopher Storer, reinforced this: he had directed for comedians like Bo Burnham and Hasan Minhaj, and executive produced Ramy Youssef’s sitcom, Ramy. And The Bear has always had its funny moments, outsourcing much of the humour to Moss-Bachrach’s Richie or Matty Matheson as the less-than-handy handyman, Fak. But as the show’s acclaim has grown, so have its ambitions. The third season’s opener is just an ASMR montage of people making ravioli and tweezing edible flowers onto flumes of luminous foam, which serves as an emotional amuse-bouche for the episodes to come. It is avant-garde stuff – evoking the confusion felt by the weird third course on a tasting menu – but one that comes dangerously close to being boring.

It is an aesthetic evolution that mirrors that of The Bear itself, the restaurant that Carmy and Sydney are turning into one of Chicago’s hottest spots. “F*** this fancy s***,” a customer tells Carmy. “I want my s***.” That is the tension faced by The Bear’s brigade, between serving an ornate nine-course menu and continuing to provide the hot, dripping sandwiches that made the family business’s name. Storer has the same dilemma: dive deeper into the examination of frayed psyches or deliver more of the kinetic, almost slapstick, intensity of life in a hectic kitchen?

One thing that is not in doubt is The Bear’s deep love of food. As an art, sure, but also as a vocation. At times the relationship is clinical (“I subtracted, and I pushed,” Carmy tells Sydney, explaining his constant reinvention of their menu), but more often it serves as high allegory for human purpose. “People don’t remember the food,” Olivia Colman’s famous Chef Terry, tells an audience. “It’s the people that they remember.” And yet she is speaking at a wake for her celebrated restaurant, an assembly that mirrors an earlier funeral in the series. The restaurant is a living, breathing organism, composed of ego and community, but also of food. Scallops, asparagus, dill, pasta, fennel, beef.

For all that The Bear continues to deliver on its visual splendour – its intensity and the chaos of the kitchen – something is lost in this new series. The stakes feel lower with the restaurant now open and Richie having found some meaning in the front of house. If the first series was about returning to your roots and the second about turning those roots into a nice, earthy terrine, what drives this third instalment? The cast are still exceptional – particularly Moss-Bachrach and Edebiri, elevated to TV’s A-list since the show first aired – but the show is starting to feel repetitious. “The Beef evolves with the city,” a restaurant critic for the Chicago Telegraph writes, on the new restaurant’s opening. The Bear, however, feels stuck in a loop of its own creation.

Edebiri and White in ‘The Bear’ (FX)
Edebiri and White in ‘The Bear’ (FX)

To be a victim of your own success requires you to achieve something. And while “Part III” of The Bear (as the show styles it) doesn’t hit the heights of episodes like “The Fishes” or “Forks”, it is still a serviceable frenzy of culinary panache. Whether viewers’ tolerance will eventually wane for the, almost pornographic, attention paid to the plating of gourmet food remains to be seen. MasterChef but with Illinoisans loudly yelling at one another is an interesting fusion, but one that still needs to prove itself more than a fad.