Four episodes were screened for this review of Beef.
Television comedies are going through a vibe shift. During the 2010s, network sitcoms like Parks and Recreation focused on a more rose-colored view of the world. Amid the first Black president of the United States and a burgeoning economy, anything was possible for a fictional blonde-haired civil servant from Pawnee. Fast forward to 2023, the television landscape looks much different from the era of “Hope and Change.” Considering what is happening in our post-pandemic world, it is not surprising “rage” is the topic du jour. Take Lee Sung Jin’s wickedly dark comedy Beef, for example. With its excellent performances and killer script, the Netflix series brilliantly explores how a road rage incident between two strangers can influence them to tap into their darkest, perhaps even the purest, form of themselves.
Beef shows how a conflict between a down-on-his-luck contractor and a self-made businesswoman escalates to the point of no return. The story begins when Danny (Steven Yeun) nearly runs into Amy (Ali Wong) with his pickup truck at a home improvement store called Forsters. Instead of moving past the alleged faux pas, Amy shoots her middle finger up at Danny, and chaos ensues. Utterly fed up, Danny chases Amy in his car through Calabasas, an upper-middle-class suburb near Los Angeles. As Danny and Amy zip past the perfectly manicured lawn and McMansions, residents record the epic car chase and post it online. Fortunately for the assailants, no one knows who is behind the vehicles—yet.
Despite the close call, Danny and Amy advance their petty beef with threatening phone calls, fake negative reviews on Yelp, and, yes, even property damage. As their drama spills over to their family and friends, neither person can stop fighting. For Danny and Amy, their growing hatred for one another gives them more purpose than anything else going on in their lives. Though the two hotheads come from entirely different worlds, they are more alike than they want to admit. Amy is a busy mom who wants to sell her plant-based company, Kōyōhaus, to a wealthy white woman named Jordan (Maria Bello), while Danny is busting his butt to one day buy his aging parents a house. Unfortunately, their paths cross in the worst way possible.
Beef may be a cautionary tale on revenge, but the psychological drama also depicts how people can find common ground if they just put their grievances aside. Despite their contrasting income levels, Danny and Amy are both suffocating under the weight of their circumstances. Since Amy’s husband, George (Joseph Lee,) is a stay-at-home dad living in the shadow of his successful father, the businesswoman feels obligated to support her family’s high-rolling lifestyle as the primary breadwinner. While on the other hand, Danny feels it is his duty as the oldest son to provide for his parents and younger brother Paul (Young Mazino) after losing their motel from a crime bust. But rather than confronting their overwhelming emotions head-on, Danny and Amy lash out at each other as it gives them a sense of control and power in their lives.
There is a moment in Episode 2’s “The Rapture of Being Alive” that emphasizes the way Amy uses her conflict with Danny as an emotional release from her problems. While at a swanky art gallery show, Amy and George argue over the artist’s refusal to sell one of his father’s beloved works, a simple green chair. As the couple bicker, Amy notes that her husband’s attachment to the piece can jeopardize her business relationship with Jordan, who wants to purchase said item. George retorts that his wife only cares about money, while Amy believes she takes care of everyone but herself. Although they both make salient points, neither can comprehend how the other feels. Tragically, Amy uses this moment of strife as an excuse to call Danny and tell him that she will destroy him.
As much as Beef indulges in Danny and Amy’s eventual downfall, the dramedy also has moments of lightness. Notably, the series showcases one of the most complex portrayals of Asian American culture on television. Even in the golden age of television, very few shows depict what life is like in a Korean church, and when they do, it’s usually in opposition to Western culture, like in Gilmore Girls. So, watching a positive take on it in Beef is refreshing. When Danny visits his ex-girlfriend’s church in Orange County in Episode 3, the congregation immediately embraces him with compassion. For the first time in a long time, Danny finally lets out his pent-up emotions in a moving way. Unfortunately, this moment is fleeting as Danny reverts to his old ways of scheming and scamming.
In terms of Yeun and Wong’s performances, they are at the top of their game in Beef. As a veteran actor, Yeun knows how to make the audience care about a morally corrupt character. He has the ability to fluctuate from an insecure adult man to a manipulative charmer within seconds, like when his character worms his way into Amy’s home in Episode 1’s “The Birds Don’t Sing, They Screech in Pain.” Wong has also come a long way from her days as the white main character’s best friend on American Housewife. Like her co-star, she balances the show’s dark tone with her comedic chops well. Her reaction to Danny destroying her bathroom with an, uh, liquid substance is hilarious. However, what sells the series is the performers’ chemistry. Their tension may not be sexual, but it is full of emotion.
From its high production values to its deeply profound writing, Beef is the type of series that will immediately grab your attention. Sure, the days of a quirky ensemble cast with an upbeat tone are on pause (Abbott Elementary notwithstanding). However, with the way the world is heading right now, this era of television is something we desperately need at the present moment. If there is one thing Danny and Amy prove with their quarrel is that bottling up your emotions will only lead to more chaos and destruction.
Feature image courtesy of Andrew Cooper/Netflix
All episodes for Beef Season 1 are now available on Netflix
Beef Season 1 - 10/10