Netflix’s excellent “Beef” takes two people from completely opposite circles in Los Angeles and crashes them into each other, using the general simmering anger in this country to fuel a compelling narrative. At a recent doctor’s visit, I was asked if I was anxious, and I responded, “Isn’t everybody?” It feels like the general mood of everyone right now hovers between anxiety, frustration, and anger, and creator Lee Sung Jin uses that national state of being to craft a tonally daring piece of television, one that vacillates wildly from comedy to drama to thriller and back again. Anchored by a pair of the best performances you’ll see this year in anything, “Beef” is daring in how it allows its protagonists to be villains while also turning them into mirrors for ourselves. We’ve all had bad days. And we’re all a blink away from making a stupid decision.
A sequence of stupid decisions starts the series as Danny (Steven Yeun) tries to return items to a big-box store and is frustrated after being unable to do so. He’s simmering in his car in the parking lot when he backs up too quickly and doesn’t see the fancy car speeding to his position. The driver of that car, Amy (Ali Wong), lays on the horn and even gives him the middle finger. Danny has had enough. He speeds through the streets behind her, trying to get a good look at her face and do who-knows-what if he catches her. He hasn't thought that far. Driving across a lawn to try and cut her off, she turns the tables and almost runs into him instead. As she speeds away, he gets her license plate number, and, well, he’s not going to let this go.
The first few episodes of “Beef” are beautifully structured in terms of plotting, taking us into Danny and Amy’s worlds while also slowly tying them together in a manner that feels increasingly dangerous. Danny is one of those guys who has run out of straws to grasp. Those items he was returning in the opening scene? They were for a suicide attempt. He’s a Korean immigrant who has been busting his ass as a contractor to get his parents to come to the United States, but he’s still healing from the reason they had to leave in the first place: an illegal scheme involving his dangerous cousin Isaac (David Choe). Being a makeshift parent to his brother Paul (Young Mazino), who Danny sees as a lazy straggler, doesn’t help his stress. For Danny, the road rage incident is a sign of everything wrong in his life. He’s just trying to pull out of a spot. Who does this lady think she is?
On the other hand, Amy lives an entirely different life in the upper-class art world of Los Angeles. Early scenes subtly intercut scenes of Amy and her husband George (Joseph Lee) talking about major deals and home renovations with Danny constantly checking a minimal account balance. These people are very different in their day-to-day existences, but Amy also knows the pressure of family. She wonders if she’s sacrificed too much in the work-life balance when raising her daughter. She’s suspicious of the women who flirt with her handsome husband. She’s constantly hustling, and that’s all she was doing as she had the right-of-way in that parking lot, right? Who does this guy think he is?
“Beef” is the story of two people who seem like they have had to “take the high road” too many times in their lives. They’re done with it. Danny finds Amy first and does something awful in her house. Amy realizes what’s happening and escalates the action by Yelp-bombing his business and then basically catfishing his brother. However, “Beef” smartly isn't satisfied with merely being an escalating series of horrible decisions like you might expect. Without spoiling, it seems at times that Danny and Amy are actually going to put things behind them and find happiness, the former in a Korean church community and the latter when she finally starts getting the professional respect she's deserved. But those earlier decisions aren’t done rippling.
Steven Yeun is quite simply one of the best actors of his generation, and he makes so many fascinating decisions here. He understands the body language of a man who is tired of losing but can’t stop making bigger and bigger mistakes in an effort to win. He’s like a gambler who thinks increasing his bet will somehow change his luck. However, Yeun doesn’t succumb to the clichés of what could have just been an angry-young-incel part. He shades this character with decency, regret, and relatable exhaustion without over-playing Danny’s flaws. So many actors would have leaned on Danny’s villainy, but it’s the grounding of the two characters that keep “Beef” from going off the rails—at least until the penultimate episode, which gets a little hard-to-swallow and takes some major decisions away from Danny and Amy in a way that isn't thematically rich.
Wong matches Yeun beat-for-beat from the first episode to last. It’s easily the best acting work of her career, and I hope it opens dozens of doors for her in terms of future collaborations. About halfway through the season, I started to think about all the filmmakers I’d like to see work with her, and most of them were legends. On paper, Amy could have been a shrill, unrelatable careerist, a plot device for the other half of the show, but the creators and Wong never let that happen. Amy makes some crazy decisions, but Wong sells them. We believe them because of her work to give this character backstory and honest human emotion.
If people are turned off by “Beef,” it will be for the wild, crazy tone swings. At one point, it looks like it’s going to explode in violence, and then the writing suddenly shifts to something more comedic in tone. I found the way the writing and acting here thread that needle invigorating. The unpredictability adds to the tension. The next scene could be funny or terrifying. Anything could happen. Your whole life could change because of a honked horn.
Whole season was screened for review. "Beef" is now streaming on Netflix.
Steven Yeun as Danny Cho
Ali Wong as Amy Lau
Joseph Lee as George Nakai
Young Mazino as Paul Cho
David Choe as Issac Cho
Patti Yasutake as Fumi Nakai
Ashley Park as Naomi
Justin H. Min as Edwin
Andrew Santino as Michael
Maria Bello as Jordan