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'The Bear' Season 3 Gave Us A Great Donna and Too Much Fak

By Chris Revelle | TV | July 9, 2024 |

By Chris Revelle | TV | July 9, 2024 |


The Bear’s second season episode “Fishes” pulled off an impressive gambit. In the episode, the viewers spend a Christmas dinner with Carmen’s family and fill in some background for the constant grinding tension Carmy carries with him. If season one’s surprise was that Jon Bernthal portrays Carmen’s dearly departed brother, season two’s was that the Berzatto family contains no fewer than four celebrity cameos, including John Mulaney, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, and Jamie Lee Curtis. It felt daring because cameos can be a risk. Especially in a naturalistic dramedy like The Bear, celebrity cameos could take viewers out of the moment, be too funny in the wrong place, or simply not believably fit in the world of the show, but “Fishes” somehow pulled it off. Not only did the cameos fill out the Berzatto clan with believable characters but the performances serviced the show. These weren’t one-off ha-ha moments but memorable figures with impacts and implications for The Bear. Going into its third season, the show attempts to one-up this coup de grace by sprinkling cameos familiar and new throughout the season, and in doing so, it gives viewers the best and the worst cameos it’s offered so far. In comparing the best and worst, we get a sense of how a celebrity’s appearance can be successful and how hard they can fail.

Beware, I’ll be discussing spoilers from season three of The Bear.

In fairness to John Cena, it’s not his fault that season three overuses the Faks. I’ve seen writers elsewhere describe the Faks as a seasoning, and this season, the top of the shaker has popped off, and the Faks are poured over the show, overwhelming its flavor. Don’t get me wrong, the Faks are great! I love those weird gremlins who seem to do every trade and act like cartoon doofuses. They’re one of the show’s few sources of comedy, and they’re a nice wacky foil to the intensity of haute cuisine. The trouble is, instead of being used to cut the acidic drama with a little giggle, season three drags viewers away from the plot to have entire subplots with the Faks.

Cena is fine in the role of Sammy Fak. He’s a charming and funny comedic actor, and it’s not active torture to see him play a goofy, musclebound big brother. Sammy introduces the concept of a “haunt” (seemingly a long and deep series of intense pranks) that is evidently a longstanding tradition within the larger mythology of the Faks. It’s just that there are only so many times that watching grown men act like bickering tykes will be funny, and the Faks as characters don’t feel meant for this much focus. It’s like the common sequel foible of moving a well-loved supporting character into a lead position; a wacky side character is a web of choices and games that feels too shallow and thin when given the lead. All of this makes Cena’s cameo too conspicuous and takes me right out of the show. As The Bear goes on, it gets less comedic, so plopping a loud celebrity cameo into the mix feels atonal. It’s a cameo that simply doesn’t work. It doesn’t add to the show and instead disrupts it.

On the other hand, the return of Jamie Lee Curtis’ Donna Berzatto is a cameo at its absolute best. Curtis was arguably the most memorable guest star of “Fishes” as a woman so overflowing with tempestuous emotions that she could drown herself and everyone else around her. Alcoholism and seemingly untreated mental health issues combine to make Donna the type of person whose resting state is shivering and wounded. Curtis manages to summon a magnetic field around Donna, which has her flinch and grimace at the slightest disturbance. Donna feels like the true definition of a live-wire: there is no telling when or how she’ll snap, but you can be sure it will be volcanic. It’s easily one of my favorite performances I’ve seen from Curtis, and if I was impressed by the behemoth Donna could become in the midst of a Christmas dinner meltdown, I was blown away by seeing Donna in a lower register as we see in the season 3 episode “Ice Chips.”

Until this episode, Sugar has been spiraling about her impending motherhood and dodging Donna’s calls. It’s as real as it is messy: Sugar wants to avoid inflicting her child with her baggage, and her baggage (about herself, about parenthood, about lots of things) traces its origins back to her mother. When none of the team answers Sugar’s frantic phone calls, it’s Donna who meets her at the hospital when labor starts, and Donna is immediately a bit much.

She’s shouting, she’s near tears, she’s pestering Sugar with her “hee-hee-hee” breathing, and it’s exactly this chaos Sugar wants to avoid. In something akin to a bottle episode, we spend the rest of the episode with Sugar and Donna inside a hospital room as Sugar rides out cresting waves of contractions and Donna does her uneven best to help. Curtis plays Donna as a woman with little ability to contain her thoughts and limited ability to reflect. While making somewhat manic banter with a nurse, Donna says she wanted to have children so she could experience love and gratitude, just like she imagined local mothers do while they block up grocery aisles with their strollers. It’s a startling admission that throws Donna in sharp relief: in her own narrative, she had children to both get something back from them and to somehow stick it to other people. The magic of Curtis’ performance is that as awful a thing as that is, I was just as bowled over by how desperate this makes Donna as a person. Though she’s been an undeniable source of strife and emotional abuse for her family, you see the tragedy that this is all a desperate grasp for love and stability.

The birthing room takes on the air of a play, with Curtis and Abby Elliot acting their asses off and bringing forth moments of raw emotional intimacy. They speak difficult truths to each other and go some distance in unpacking their deeply cracked relationship. The camera engages in long, tight close-ups that turn Elliot and Curtis’ faces into a rich topography of tenderness and pain. The glory moment for me was one particular close-up on Curtis where we see her face crease, fold, contract, and twitch, moving uneasily and abruptly from hurt to love to some overwhelming cocktail of the two. Curtis’ face threatens to collapse at any moment with her shaking, rolling lips, and tearful eyes that are just shy of weeping. It’s the best cameo of the season and maybe one of the best I’ve ever seen on TV, not just because Curtis is a great actor but also because the cameo contributes to the emotional reality of the show. Donna is a huge part of why Sugar and Carmen struggle so hard as adults, and seeing them (or at least Sugar) confront this thorny emotional thicket is incredibly moving. John Cena popped by to clown around for our dwindling amusement, but Jamie Lee Curtis led an acting masterclass that made the show that much richer. If a cameo character is going to appear, it’s fine enough to make them silly, but it’s much more impressive to make them stunning.