This is not a good show.

The late war criminal Henry Kissinger is purported to have once said: “The nice thing about being a celebrity is that if you bore people, they think it’s their fault.” It’s a great quote in spite of the source, and in recent years I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot with regard to television shows. More specifically, I think about it with regard to “prestige” offerings that become critical darlings in their early seasons, then drop off in quality, yet the sheen of that early, rapturous response seems to keep people from admitting that they are no longer very good or maybe were never actually quite that good in the first place. We make excuses for their shortcomings, aimlessness becomes mistaken for sophistication, and we continue slogging through despite the diminishing returns, because just stopping watching would somehow feel like our fault.

When FX’s The Bear premiered in 2022, it became a surprise hit, and for good reason—it was a smart and thoughtful show whose hyperspecificity, focused on a family-owned Chicago sandwich shop, felt inventive and energizing. The acting performances were stellar, particularly those of Jeremy Allen White as boy-wonder chef Carmy Berzatto, Ebon Moss-Bachrach as “cousin” Richie Jerimovich, and Ayo Edebiri as sous-chef Sydney Adamu, all of whom would go on to win numerous awards for their performances. The Bear’s first season had a preternatural self-assuredness to it; it was a sharp and fastidiously observed show about a restaurant and the people who worked there. (The copious, near-pornographic shots of Chicago beef sandwiches in various points of assemblage certainly didn’t hurt either.)

The Bear got boring, a show spinning its wheels while high on its own supply.

The Bear’s second season, which came in 2023, was not nearly as good as the first, in large part because that self-assuredness seemed to give way to navel-gazing self-regard. Narrative devices that felt fresh in the first season—extensive use of flashbacks and other fragmented chronology, ostentatious long takes and even longer montage sequences, luxuriously digressive stand-alone episodes focused on supporting characters—were recycled in the second and now felt gimmicky and tryhard. The music cues, already overdone in the first season, became downright suffocating in the second. There was the introduction of a ludicrously thinly written love interest for Carmy, Claire (an underused Molly Gordon), a tirelessly supportive dream girl with an M.D. whose true passion seemed to be selflessly bearing the brunt of Carmy’s brooding dysfunction. But worst of all, The Bear got boring, a show spinning its wheels while high on its own supply and devoid of the clear sense of purpose that had defined its first season.

And yet the show continued to be showered with awards and rave reviews, even as, in the course of many of these reviews, critics themselves conceded many of the flaws above, flaws that we normally wouldn’t confuse with a great show, or even a particularly good one. But they were promptly waved away—by both critics and vocal fans of the series—as if to admit that The Bear had declined in quality was to confess some personal inadequacy. The Bear cannot fail; The Bear can only be failed.

Having now watched all of The Bear’s third season, I feel confident in saying that The Bear is a bad show, and that it’s a bad show in especially annoying ways. In the absence of any substantive storytelling progress or character development—by the end of Season 3, even the barest narrative stakes remain bafflingly opaque—the show now exists as a sort of composite of mannerisms and affectations that it hopes its audience will mistake for good television. There’s even more of the cloying cinematography that veers between wowie-zowie tracking shots and jittery, claustrophobic handheld work; even more of the nonlinear storytelling devices, stretched to newly exhausting extremes; even more of the distracting pileup of stunt-casted guest stars; even more of the near-constant soundtrack needle-drops that feel curated by the kind of guy who puts on Astral Weeks at parties and asks everyone if they’ve heard it before.

The Bear has now had 28 episodes, or roughly 14 hours of run time, over which astonishingly little has actually happened. One restaurant has closed, and a new one has opened. People have yelled at each other, then made up, then yelled at each other more. Characters have been faced with important decisions and have failed to make them. A brother’s death has been rehashed via flashback more times than Thomas and Martha Wayne’s. Toward the end of Season 3, a baby is born; best of luck to her. Even the show’s acting, once such a strength, now feels mostly lifeless and one-note and surely isn’t helped by the writers’ steadfast refusal to develop the characters, or the show’s overreliance on frenetically edited close-ups as a visual shorthand for emotional intensity. (One exception to this is Moss-Bachrach, who is so good as cousin Richie it sometimes feels as if he’s carrying the whole show, even from an ostensibly supporting role.)

Most glaring are all the ways that the show’s aimlessness has become purposefully embedded into both its content and its form. The incessant use of flashbacks feels like a crutch to avoid characters or the show itself actually moving forward, in any direction. Dribbling out details of a character’s past like breadcrumbs is a hackish and tiresome device: Filling in backstory shouldn’t be confused with character development. Multiple characters have become increasingly defined by their inability to make decisions—leaving aside that this isn’t a particularly compelling trait, it also conveniently gives the show yet another way to avoid anything actually happening.

It’s long felt as if The Bear is piggybacking off other people’s art to distract from its own lack of substance.

The absence of well-drawn story or characters means that the show has to rely on gimmicky tricks to achieve any semblance of emotional payoff. The most noxious of these is the aforementioned near-constant underscoring, always with music that none of the characters in the show would ever listen to. (For a show set in Chicago, The Bear’s interest in that city’s illustrious musical history is fanatically Caucasian, running the gamut from Wilco to Smashing Pumpkins to more Wilco with a generous helping of Pearl Jam thrown in, presumably because Eddie Vedder is a Cubs fan.) The latest season includes multiple versions of The Beat’s “Save It for Later” (including one by Vedder, natch), John Cale’s “Big White Cloud,” and yet another appearance of R.E.M.’s “Strange Currencies.” These are all good songs that I would never normally object to hearing, but it’s long felt as if The Bear is piggybacking off other people’s art to distract from its own lack of substance. The sum effect is a bit like the teenager foisting mixtapes on a crush, out of not a yearning for mutual connection but rather a fidgety need for her to know how cool he is.

The shame of it all is that The Bear once had the potential to be a great show, one about how often the underside of creative greatness is a monomaniacal selfishness that treats relationships with people as either obstacles to surmount or as means to an end, collateral damage in the pursuit of some impossibly idealized vision. Many of the world’s most brilliant and ambitious artists are pretty unpleasant human beings, in large part because the personality types that allow people to ascend to those heights don’t lend themselves to what most of us consider cool or well-adjusted behavior. That’s an interesting and difficult premise, and one well worth making a television show about. But The Bear’s penchant for melodrama—and the show is, at core, a melodrama—can’t bring itself to go there. Instead it has to paint its protagonist as a trauma victim, a figure whose torment comes from his mother, his late brother, a particularly cruel mentor, and is in turn inflicted on those around him because he just can’t help it. As such, rather than saying something challenging and probing about the nature of exceptional creativity, the show retreats into the most juvenile of fantasies on the subject: that being a fucked-up person and artistic genius have a causal relationship to each other rather than a correlative one.

At one point late in Season 3, there’s a scene in which a poster for Cameron Crowe’s 1989 teen-romance classic Say Anything is prominently visible in the background. It caught my eye (as it was surely meant to) and prompted me to reflect on what a profound influence Crowe’s work seems to be on The Bear’s creator, Christopher Storer. Crowe’s best movies are earnest and infectiously endearing hang-out films, films that are unabashedly sentimental but wield that sentimentality deftly and humanely. They are also, of course, famous for their own use of pop music needle-drops: I can’t think of a more indelible such moment than when Say Anything’s Lloyd Dobler holds his boom box aloft outside Diane’s window as Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” plays, or when the tour bus breaks into Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” in Almost Famous. These are great songs, but the scenes work so well because of everything that has come before them—they work as a culmination of moments, rather than simply moments unto themselves.

Ultimately, what’s so irksome about The Bear isn’t just its aimlessness. It’s the sleight of hand that tries to keep you from noticing said aimlessness, the incessant little gestures to remind you of other, better works of art: better movies, better songs, better shows, even better seasons of The Bear itself. The Bear was once a good show and now it’s not, which isn’t some great crime, nor is admitting it. Even the best restaurants go downhill.

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