It happens way more often than I would like to admit. Someone cuts me off in traffic or takes a second too long applying the gas after the traffic signal turns green or steals my parking space as I am about to park. In my book, all are actions punishable by the roar of my blaring car horn. It is my not so subtle reminder that says, “Hey, I think you’re a jerk,” while also letting off my pent up stress. I rarely think of what the other person feels like, that is until I am in their shoes and I am the one being honked at. Suddenly, the idea of aggressively honking your horn becomes a horrid offense.
Netflix’s new 10-part limited series Beef may have altered my use of the car horn permanently. Though automobile etiquette is certainly not the point of the series, a lack of it is where this unhinged tale begins. A brief, unfortunate encounter in a parking lot sets off a devastating, yet ever-so-entertaining, domino effect that quickly multiplies, until worlds are crashing down in wildly unpredictable ways. Created and co-written by Lee Sung-Jin, the dark black comedy is one of the year’s most original and demanding of the year.
Beef starts off simple enough, a near miss in a parking lot between the have and the have nots; a wealthy and successful businesswoman, Amy (Ali Wong) in her pristine white Mercedes SUV and the fed-up, struggling contractor Danny (Steven Yeun) driving a worn down clunker of a pickup truck. An aggressively honked horn leads to a middle finger being flung followed by a dangerous fury-driven high speed chase through typically quiet suburban streets. Before it comes to a halt, Danny memorizes the yet to be known driver’s license plates ready to settle this later. The confrontation sets into motion a series of events that unleashes the pent up aggression both possess in ways that quickly grow out of control.
With each passing episode their actions escalate into a frenzied one-upping chess match of revenge. The pair become so hyper focused on the other’s destruction that they are oblivious to those who gets hurt in the wake. All this from a small parking lot altercation with two people who cannot wait to dispose of the other. The irony is that each attack on the other only ties them together more, to the point they are so intertwined there is no turning back. What we are left with, initially, is rage porn – that is before it transforms into so much more.
While it would seem easy to pick sides in the feud, Sung-Jin avoids leading the viewer in any direction. On one side is Danny, a hard-working guy who cannot catch a break. He feels unappreciated and judged at every turn and with good reason. You cannot help but feel bad for the guy especially since Yeun’s ability to tap into the character’s everyman qualities make him quite relatable. His unlikely opponent, Amy, on paper she would certainly come across as a less sympathetic character. She appears to have it all and looks to be lining herself up for more. Still, the more we learn about her the more obvious that she would probably trade it all away in a heartbeat, if her ego and other’s expectations would allow her to do so. She is trapped in a cage of her own making and the pressure is becoming too much.
When the characters let their guards down, exploring their relatable flaws with brutal honesty, the series transforms into something much more. It taps into a vein of humanity, elevating what easily could have been a one joke premise into a searing look at modern malaise. What we are left with is an emotionally charged tug of war between two people on the opposite ends of the social spectrum who have much more in common than they know. The use of juxtaposition that should further distance themselves effectively digs deeper to make the similarities only resonate more. Unfortunately for them, they are too blinded by misguided vengeance to recognize it is self-destructive.
How much the series tackles and how effectively it does so is flat out impressive. There is no shortness of big swings here, with twists that range from outright shocking to the emotionally jarring dropping in each episode. And yet, no matter how big it goes the finer strokes are all there. Across all episodes it’s incredibly funny with humor ranging from is dark and often uncomfortable to physical comedy, which may also lean darker. The humor works in part to create a blisteringly sharp satire that looks at many aspects of today’s world.
In between it all there are incredibly raw, vulnerable moments that tap into the human psyche in ways that would not seem possible based on how it all started. The more introspective Amy and Danny are, the more sympathetic these out of control characters become. Depression, disappointment, trauma family pressures, infidelity are just a few of the themes taken on in this ambitious series. Don’t get me wrong, the episodes (which run about 30-minutes each) are easy to consume and, but take much longer to digest.
This A24 produced series uses its wild ride rooted in negativity as a misdirect on an unexpected journey into compassion and empathy. I found my feeling conflicted by much of the series rooting for and against them at the same time. My allegiance shifted frequently because of the complexities of their respective situations. Even if on the surface they appear so ordinary at times underneath the pain they are both processing hits on a visceral level.
As for performances, both Steven Yeun and Ali Wong are simply electrifying, finding the right balance between the extreme and the engaging. If both Wong and Yeun are not nominated for Emmys we riot at noon. Okay, okay maybe I am getting carried away with the rebellious nature of the show (but seriously we riot at noon).
Over the last five years Yeun has been on fire; from Minari to Invincible to Dope he quickly established himself as a must-watch actor. Beef is no exception. The range he displays is impressive – dipping his brush into a wide palette of emotion and nailing them all. His anger and indignation land with a fierce impact, but it is the quiet hopeless, self-reflective moments that are most revealing. Yeun gives Danny a persistent deep sadness that resonates throughout the series, making this performance perhaps his all-time best. Even as a character who can often be dislikable, you cannot help but want the best for him.
Wong is fearless in her breakout performance. She has been entertaining for years in the comedy world, voice work and smaller, but this is next level. The character of Amy could easily have been the audience’s punching bag. To be fair, who wouldn’t be jealous of her life? She’s wealthy, attractive, successful, with a loving husband and child – she has it all. The subtlety in Wong’s performance reveals chips in the seemingly perfect veneer, moments of vulnerability that make her more accessible. When her guard comes down, even just a little, it becomes evident there’s a good person inside. While the pressure is secretly drowning her she conveys great agency, never the victim or a spectator in her own story. Wong hits both the comedic and dramatic notes with the finesse of an old pro.
In addition, the supporting cast is superb, fleshing out the world with people whose own pain and anxieties add to the external pressures with which Danny and Amy must deal. Joseph Lee as Amy’s well-intentioned husband George, Young Mazino as Danny’s slacker Paul and David Choe as Danny’s frighteningly volatile cousin, Isaac, and Maria Bello as the billionaire who has the power to take Amy to the next level of success or just remind her of her inadequacies. Another standout in a supporting role are the pitch perfect turn-of-the-century needle drops which extend the themes right into the credits. Loved them.
Beef is demanding and compelling storytelling chock full of emotional chaos. It frequently shifts tones while delivering numerous unexpected twists. Endless cynicism, laugh out loud humor, and even some unflinching violence are blended into thought-provoking storytelling. Then when you least expect it, a hint of beauty creeps into the mix. Even as the surrounding events cross into over-the-top territory, Sung-Jin keeps the series grounded in the human aspects which are always the central focus.
Watching two hopelessly lost people find meaning in their life by hurting each other may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Trust me, there’s much more to unpack here. If you stick with it you will find something much more profound than what is on the surface. It is often challenging, unforgettably original in its approach, and surprisingly affecting. In a year of great television, Beef is an absolute standout – a real prime cut.
Beef is now streaming in its entirety exclusively on Netflix.