- Creator: Lee Sun Jin
- Starring: Steven Yeun, Ali Wong, Young Mazino, David Choe, Joseph Lee, Patty Yasutake, Maria Bello, Ashley Park, Justin H. Min
- Ten episodes watched for review
It all starts in a parking lot between a 20-year old pickup truck and a shiny, new Mercedes. In spite of the specific circumstances, it’s a scenario we can all relate to: a minor incident occurs and touches a nerve that allows it to fester for an incomprehensible amount of time. Unfortunately for the characters in Beef, the newest limited series from Netflix and A24, it’s a moment that begins the unraveling of two lives and virtually everyone else they know and love.
The man in the pickup truck is Danny Cho (Steven Yeun), a Southern California handyman who, in the first episode’s opening moments, tries and fails to return a couple of grills at a local hardware store. He’s the owner of his own contracting business and, as we’ll come to find out, he’s gone through a few iterations of the business so far. He had some legal trouble in the past and leans heavily on his cousin Isaac (David Choe), who gets sketchier and sketchier as the season progresses. But he’s also supporting his slacker younger brother Paul (Young Mazino), and he’s fighting an uphill battle to save up enough money to buy his parents a tract of land and bring them to the states from South Korea.
The woman in the Mercedes is Amy Lau (Ali Wong), an entrepreneur who owns her own artisanal pottery store and is in talks to be bought by the same hardware chain where the series begins. She’s unhappily married to George (Joseph Lee), who contributes his own pottery to the store and is the son of a pair of famous artists himself.
We’ll come to learn over the course of 10 episodes that the incident in the hardware store parking lot, which unfolds as an extended bit of road rage that hangs over the entire series, was less a happenstance occurrence and more of an inevitability. Beef, created by Lee Sung Jin, deftly taps into our inner rage and disappointment and how it can so easily destroy us. Indeed, a minor inconvenience in real life would end right then and there for most people. But both Danny and Amy seem hard-wired to believe they’ve been slighted not only by each other, but by the universe.
The show taps into the rich-versus-poor narrative well enough, and uses this backbone effectively throughout a number of its episodes. But it also deals with themes of youth versus experience, and it’s in those undertones that the show really hits its stride. This really comes into play when Paul and Amy begin seeing each other in a deeply weird but somehow grounded manner. Though Wong is only one year older than Yeun, she carries with her an air of confidence that makes us believe she knows better, in spite of her actions. Both her and Yeun are fantastic in their roles, fully selling the increasingly stupid and self-sabotaging decisions they make throughout the series. Yeun is the established presence heading into Beef, and Wong has worked plenty as a stand-up and voice actor, but she’s practically a revelation as she navigates all of Amy’s insecurities. Here’s hoping more creators take notice and cast her in upcoming projects.
Naturally, the show unfolds and touches on other subjects besides Amy and Danny’s disdain for each other. Lee manages to weave in all the secondary characters, and the ways they unknowingly cross paths with each other becomes one of the show’s strongest aspects. That’s not to say that there aren’t a few moments and character beats that feel convenient for the plot – George is truly a colossal moron towards the back half of the series – but it all comes back to the characters and their fundamental drives. There are subplots, like a brief moment focusing on Amy’s mother-in-law Fumi (Patty Yasutake), that feel like padding the runtime to fill the ten episodes, but these are mostly minor occurrences. Thankfully Lee has the good sense to make each episode less than 40 minutes, making the show feel breezier and easier to digest.
Beef could fail by taking itself too seriously as a meditation on anger, but it smartly throws in enough situational and character-based humor to know when to lighten up. It may not be a perfect show, but it’s far from repetitive and has a lot to say about an incredibly specific but universal experience.
Beef will be available to stream on Netflix April 6.