The Bear Season 3 Overcooks Its Cameos

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The Bear Season 3 Overcooks Its Cameos

Of all the various forms of fiction, TV and film are perhaps the modern-day medium that hinges most critically on writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s notion of “suspension of disbelief.” Whereas the imagery of poetry or prose appears individually to us in our mind’s eye, on screen we watch recognizable people (also known as actors) doing this thing called “acting.” When the actors and the other formal elements that comprise the show (production design, the script, cinematography, all that good stuff) integrate just right and result in something akin to a distinct world grounded in a palpable reality, we accept this basic exchange to derive cathartic satisfaction from the mimetic proceedings; in other words, we glean emotional truth from the illusion. But when minor cracks appear in the borders of the closed world that the show has established, the truth can ooze out of the fissures. This is the paradox of verisimilitude: we tend to be more invested in a story grounded in truthful fiction than a story that offers fictional truths.

So what happens when a show isn’t offering a world of dragons or vampires but instead one of draconic kitchen rules and exceedingly pale—yet oh so hunky—chefs in the very real realm of the Chicago culinary scene? You end up with a show like FX and Hulu’s series The Bear, which, in its third season, holds steady as one of the most scrumptious blends of biting comedy and equally piquant pathos on TV today. But on a show that’s so excellent at immersing us in the claustrophobic world of piping-hot skillets and even hotter-tempered cooks, one of its now-defining devices—the cameo—has begun to overpower all of its other essential ingredients, pulling us out of its familiar, familial world instead of keeping us locked in it.

To get the obvious out of the way: cameos can be a ton of fun, and The Bear has used them deftly before. Having readily identifiable actors or celebrities step on screen for a minor role in a minor scene can work by knowingly toying with our impressions of the reality that the show otherwise maintains. Cameos are jokes that serve as momentary reminders that we’re watching theater, fabrication, fiction—when used intelligently (and sparingly), they can prove gleeful and even profound additions to the tone and themes of the show. Especially for a series like The Bear, which often flitters between nearly-slapstick humor and some of the most harrowing explorations of grief and mental illness on TV, the dashes of levity that cameos can provide often arrive as welcome respites in tension.

The notorious Season 2 episode “Fishes” saw the Berzatto household filled with relatives played by high-profile guest stars such as Bob Odenkirk, Jon Bernthal, Sarah Paulson, John Mulaney, and, most notably, Jamie Lee Curtis as mama bear Donna for one chaotic Christmas dinner. It resulted in arguably the best—and most crucial—episode of the series and managed to distill everything The Bear does spectacularly well into one hour-long episode, interspersing intense character conflicts with moments of true tenderness and humor. Another Season 2 episode, “Sundae,” provided a different sort of cameo. In it, Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) scours the Chicago culinary scene, visiting real establishments like Avec, Publican, and Kasama, and meeting with the restaurateurs who run them. “Sundae” was a lovely episode in a show full of them because it used these cameos to both influence Sydney’s character arc as she gleans creative inspiration for The Bear, the restaurant, while also, on a meta-level, demonstrating to viewers how these real-life figures provided creative inspiration for The Bear, the TV show.

However, in Season 3, the cameos simply don’t leave as pleasant of an aftertaste. The first comes in the fifth episode “Children,” when the highly memeable pro-wrestler-turned-Barbie-merman John Cena appears as floor buffer Sammy Fak, brother of Neil (Matty Matheson) and Ted (Ricky Staffieri). Look, I like Cena, and I can’t say I didn’t get a jolt of amusement seeing him burst into The Bear. But he’s hardly the most versatile actor out there, and his performance as Sammy relies too heavily on his loveable doofus energy, never allowing him to congeal into a rounded character that fits neatly into The Bear universe. Whereas the celebrity statures of some of The Bear’s other guest stars are arguably up there with Cena’s, their presences weren’t merely punchlines. Rather, actors like Odenkirk, Bernthal, and Curtis (the latter two come back in two of Season 3’s best episodes) were afforded the terrain to inhabit distinct characters that magnify the world of The Bear instead of distracting from it.

The other more consequential instance of a cameo occurs in Season 3’s finale, though this one consists of multiple fresh faces—and none of them are actors. The episode revolves around the closing night of Ever, a real-life Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago. Carmy (Jeremy Allen White), Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), and Sydney all attend the farewell dinner, where they share a meal with some locally and internationally renowned culinary creators, including Genie Kwon, Anna Posey, Kevin Boehm, Will Guidara, Grant Achatz, and Malcolm Livingston II, among others (restaurateur Thomas Keller appears earlier in the episode to educate Carmy on the art of removing wishbones from roast chickens and soliloquize about the beauty of making food people love). In a striking extended scene, each chef goes around and shares the stories of their first dishes, their hopes and dreams for the future of their industry, and what drives them to pursue this chaotic profession. Witnessing their accounts of their devotion to the world that The Bear inhabits adds a layer of emotion to the proceedings by meta-textually honoring the real-life people who inspire much of the show. But, as noted, The Bear pulled off a similar feat in “Sundae,” so while this go-around may add another touch of empathy to our understanding of the Chicago fine-dining scene, it comes off slightly redundant and saccharine, like a scoop of chocolate ice cream atop a slice of chocolate cake.

It’s not that the culinary stars perform poorly on the show. On the contrary, their anecdotes are amusing and heartfelt, their passion for their craft remarkable. And their inclusion brings with it a secondary form of emotional heft. One of the presiding gray clouds of anxiety that hangs over the series is the status of the restaurant landscape post-pandemic at large. Throughout the season, scenes are intercut with newspaper headlines detailing restaurant closings, chefs facing bankruptcy, the death of an era. It’s this existential threat that looms over each screaming match, every burnt dish and “Opa!” accident at The Bear.

So it’s jarring, then, to watch fake Ever head chef Andrea Terry, played by real-life A-lister Olivia Coleman, take a moment to thank her real and fictional guests for attending her(?) esteemed real restaurant’s closing night. It’s a tinge anticlimactic to see Carmy finally confronting his hellish mentor (Joel McHale), Sydney undergo a panic attack about the possibility of leaving these people behind her for another opportunity, and finally an ambiguous Chicago Tribune review that may or may not spell The Bear’s financial doom, for an implicit question has just been raised: Why should we care about these characters after the show has called attention to the fact that they are not real but the other chefs at the table—who no doubt scramble every day to keep their restaurants economically and artistically thriving—are real? 

Well, it’s not that we shouldn’t care. The joy of the art form of fiction is that we’re often moved to care even when we rationally know these narratives don’t actually exist. Normally, however, we’re able to keep that thought process hidden away in the back of our brains. In the same way that one of Season 3’s primary themes is that of hauntings, demonstrated by the idea that our pasts are invariably intertwined with our presents and futures, it seems that The Bear wants to dismantle the borders between fiction and reality, between Chicago’s culinary scene and The Bear’s interpretation of Chicago’s culinary scene. What winds up happening is that, because these cameos draw so much attention and muddle the distinctions between who’s a character in this world and who’s playing a character in this world, they paradoxically further distance the lines between fact and fiction. It’s not that we feel nothing for the characters by the end of the episode, but our capacity for catharsis has been diluted. Our suspension of disbelief has been unsuspended.

The Bear’s third season might not be its strongest—in this critic’s opinion, its reliance on flashbacks and deepening the characters without giving them any room to grow keeps the season on a low simmer when it should be cooking red-hot. But a marginally less-than-fantastic entry of The Bear still offers plenty of reasons to book a reservation for the next season, hoping they make a few adjustments to the menu by then. Early in Season 3, Carmy creates a list of “non-negotiables” for his kitchen to follow (just what this stubborn staff needs: rules!). One of the most important non-negotiables is “subtract,” the quality-control method that urges the chefs to remove superfluous, flashy ingredients that do nothing to improve the dish. For a show so skilled at wringing emotional truths out of the world filled with actors playing characters, it could take its own advice and pare back the cameos. It’ll make everything even more delicious—and real.

Michael Savio is a freelance writer and former editorial intern at Paste based in New York. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in cultural reporting and criticism at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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