Psychologists are quick to say, “Hurt people hurt people,” when answering why people inflict traumas on one another, and then continue to do so in perpetuity. But what does that really look like in action? Lee Sung Jin, the creator and writer of Netflix’s new series Beef, is all about exploring that ugliness in action and does so in a truly spectacular fashion in this wild series.
Using the spark of a mundane, suburban road-rage incident in a hardware store parking lot between strangers Danny Cho (Steven Yuen) and Amy Lau (Ali Wong), Beef follows the unraveling of these two lonely and angry souls who see in one another their perfect foils, reflections of self and, perhaps, even salvation. Both Yeun and Wong give mighty performances as dual protagonists who are both selfish and impulsive yet still sympathetic. Their stories weave together in a complex and cathartic ride through chaos that ends as a poignant, existential mediation about how these two broken people are destined to break each other down into their purest selves.
Set in contemporary Southern California, the opening minutes of the first episode, “The Birds Don't Sing, They Screech in Pain,” provides the aforementioned conflagration point that fuels the whole series. Initially, we are left to assume Beef will take a cat-and-mouse approach with the two stalking one another, but Jin smartly knows that can only go so far. Instead, he digs into the minutia of their unhappy existences. Danny is the “good kid” shouldering his family’s financial problems while trying to motivate his “lazy,” 20-something himbo brother, Paul (Young Mazino). Amy wrestles similarly as an upper-middle-class wife, mother, and entrepreneur constantly overwhelmed by her suffocating responsibilities. What the series does so well is make it crystal clear that their parking lot incident was an endorphin rush for them both; a feral, forced therapy session they become addicted to and play out in a downward spiral of vengeful, terrible behavior that unfolds across 10 episodes. It’s such a fresh take on how rage manifests in the everyday, and eventually erupts no matter how you try to control it.
Everyone in their orbit is eventually sucked into the maelstrom of the duo’s vicious revenge scenarios.
To support that, Jin and his team of writers and directors craft an absorbing spider’s web of interweaving storylines connecting the inner circles of Danny and Amy’s lives. We get to know their closest family members, their bizarre business partners, and even Danny’s Korean church community intimately, which invests us in their lives and amps up the stakes because everyone in their orbit is eventually sucked into the maelstrom of the duo’s vicious revenge scenarios. It becomes their deranged sport to externalize their pain at one another so they can continue to deflect from ever having to address their individual self-loathing.
All of that might sound like an incredibly dark and bleak watch, but that is absolutely not the case. Both Yeun and Wong give mesmerizing performances that run the gamut from comedic to unhinged. In any given episode, they serve up the very best and worst of Danny and Amy in such compelling ways that I wanted to go along for the crazy ride to see what in the hell will happen next. Together and apart, they can be heartbreakingly vulnerable and real, or selfish and calculating. And for every nasty thing they do, the writers and actors balance it by revealing some other complex truth about their character that keeps them relatable and far from caricatures.
All of that might sound like an incredibly dark and bleak watch, but that is absolutely not the case.
It also doesn't hurt that all of the episodes are a tight 30-ish minutes long, which keeps the pacing taut throughout the whole season. Even with a robust set of characters to service, there’s really no bloat. Jin serves up plenty of plot-centric hijinx but balances it with plenty of purposeful, intimate scenes that also set up the cost of Danny and Amy’s escalations. As their bad choices push the stakes and danger of their lives falling apart higher and higher, it’s akin to the tension of watching them knowingly pulling out foundational blocks in a game of Jenga. All it takes is one clearly avoidable poor reaction from either one of them and mass destruction is ensured.
We get to ride shotgun as the two of them scramble to minimize their damage until all hell breaks loose in the last three episodes. Together, they coalesce into a climactic rollercoaster of consequences that finally comes to bear on both Danny and Amy in ways that are genuinely jaw-dropping and devastatingly human. Beef manages to land its plotlines and emotional threads so well it actually makes me not want future seasons because I can’t imagine topping what’s been achieved here.
With Beef, creator Lee Sung Jin and his stellar cast have crafted an almost operatic tale about the cost of unaddressed rage, narcissism, and trauma. It’s funny, it’s harrowing, and it’s exceptionally original in portraying two damaged people who find their mirror selves in a random parking lot dust-up. Stephen Yeun and Ali Wong are spectacular as Danny and Amy, making it natural to believe that they are tormented soulmates who share a common darkness they’ve kept hidden their whole lives. Watching them provoke, terrorize, and eventually truly see one another is an exhilarating, terrifying spectacle that deserves all the buzz it’s getting.