4 out of 5 stars

If you’ve ever been involved in a road rage incident, you’ve likely wondered ‘What’s going on in their life to make them so angry?’ Most of us move on from these brief encounters, but in Netflix’s Beef this question is the launching point for a tensely constructed two-handler between Ali Wong and Steven Yeun, whose characters almost literally crash into each other in a parking lot, and continue to move through each other’s lives with similar velocity.

An incident that initially seems like an everyday occurrence soon develops into a sprawling cat-and-mouse game that brings both characters to rock bottom and back several times, crescendoing in an intense finale that verges on a fever dream. But between that first burst of irrational anger and the insanity we arrive at, there’s a complex story about the nature of anger and what lies beneath it.

Created by Lee Sung Jin, Beef is something of a return and departure for both Wong and Yeun. It repeats themes and questions that have shaped their careers already, but also challenging characters to embody, in a series that rarely slows down once the pair starts their increasingly diabolical downward spiral.

Ali Wong plays Amy Lau, a wealthy business owner on the brink of selling her high-end houseplant business, who’s hoping to cash out and spend more time with her family. Or so she says. Steven Yuen portrays Danny Cho, a down-on-his-luck contractor desperately trying to hold his family together and scrape together enough for a plot of land on which to build a home for his ageing parents.

Though comedian Wong is a newcomer to acting, she’s always been a sharp and natural performer in her stand-up and those skills transfer well to Beef. It helps, of course, that many aspects of her character are eerily reminiscent of her own life, but she rises to the occasion and makes an excellent foil to Yuen’s Danny. The show begins as a sly drama but leans more into absurdity and the realm of black comedy as it progresses, which allows Wong to really shine.

Not surprisingly, Yuen gives an excellent performance. Now years removed from his breakthrough role in AMC’s The Walking Dead, he’s given some arresting performances since (like an Academy Award-nominated turn in Minari), and his ability to convey pathos and anguish brings audiences into his world and into the pain he feels making it hard to root against him, even as he does despicable things in the name of getting even. Since this is as much a story about class as anything else, the stakes of Danny’s world feel slightly more consequential, at least at first. The strain of barely getting by and being on the brink of financial ruin feels more sympathetic than the situation we meet Amy in, as she’s about to sell her company Kōyōhaus for $10M! Amy seemingly has it all, and it takes several episodes for us to see these two on a more equal footing.

There’s a memorable scene halfway through the series in which the two reunited clandestinely in the parking lot to try and squash their feud, and immediately devolve into rancid bickering. We get a truly masterful comedic execution from both performers, but especially Wong, and allows them both to truly let loose in a show where they’re both required to mask and subvert their emotions to protect themselves and those around them. The scene is important from a narrative perspective as well. When the two are interrupted by honks from another car asking them to move, they are united in redirecting their anger at him—briefly on the same side. This moment highlights the arbitrary nature of their fury and underscores how badly they both need an outlet to express it, in a world where it’s not accepted or acknowledged. This brings me to an important undercurrent of the show and part of the reason it packs such an emotional punch…

The importance of this high-profile and high-budget project, starring and created by Asian American performers and creators, can’t be understated. Notably, both Wong and Yuen are executive producers. It’s both exhilarating and disheartening that we’re only now getting this level of representation and creative freedom for such wildly talented artists, and Beef grapples with some of the pressures and discrimination that come with being a minority in the spotlight. Both Amy and Danny are the children of immigrants, as are Wong and Yuen in real-life. It’s clear parts of their own biographies influenced their characters, and how excruciating it can be to try and find your way with little support or recognition of what’s its cost you to get there. Though the show doesn’t explicitly explore issues of race, it’s implicit in everything, and key to understanding the characters we see relishing astonishing levels of cruelty. Ultimately, this is a show about two people who feel they can’t live up to the expectations they have of themselves, and feel stifled by the expectations of the world… so much so that self-destruction becomes an appealing way to blow off steam.

The show is incredibly rich thematically and the performances are stellar, but Beef feels weighed down at points by the intricacies of the plot. Amy and Danny are constantly trying to sabotage each other, and the gamesmanship of their antics makes the show too dense for its own good at points. Not to mention they each continue to raise the stakes in their attempts to ruin the other’s life, the show veers past the point of reality pretty early.

Furthermore, it’s difficult for the supporting cast to feel as real or lived in when so much thought and effort have been put into fleshing out the leads. This means the many scenes without Amy and Danny feuding can fall flat, and the dialogue isn’t as incisive or specific. This isn’t to say the supporting cast isn’t excellent, as they are, particularly Young Marino as Danny’s earnest and naive younger brother Paul, who himself becomes embroiled in his brother’s antics in unexpected ways. But this show operates in service of its two leads, and so every subplot and supporting character ties back to them and their conflict.

But it’s rare such a fascinatingly written and ambitious series comes along, and Beef is altogether delicious.

USA | 2023 | 10 EPISODES | 16:9 HD | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writers: Lee Sung Jin, Alice Ju, Carrie Kemper, Alex Russell, Marie Hanhnhon Nguyen, Niko Gutierrez-Kovner, Joanna Calo, Kevin Rosen & Jean Kyoung Frazier.
directors: Hikari, Jake Schreier & Lee Sung Jin.
starring: Steven Yeun, Ali Wong, Joseph Le, Young Mazino, David Choe & Patti Yasutake.