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The dramedy is at its best when it cuts away the fat and focuses on its titular beef
Beef knows it has a funny title. It's winked at several times throughout the Netflix show's first season; in one episode, the title card smash cuts to a shot of Danny (Steven Yeun) grilling steaks, and in another two characters have a philosophical discussion about the historical presence of cows in Asian cooking. In context, Beef refers to the titular beef between its two main characters, Danny and Amy (Ali Wong), who become so engrossed in the aftermath of a road rage incident that it begins to alter the trajectory of their lives and the lives of those around them. Blowing such a mundane conflict completely out of proportion is an inherently hilarious premise, and the series, created, executive produced, and co-written by Lee Sung Jin (who also directs the finale), slots neatly into the "weird half-hour drama with jokes" niche that Atlanta, Barry, and Ramy helped carve out. The moments when Beef, premiering April 6 on Netflix, focuses on that conflict are when the sometimes jumbled show becomes truly great.
The road rage incident happens early in the first episode, as seen from Danny's perspective. For a variety of reasons that become clear over the course of Beef's first season (all 10 episodes were provided to critics for review), he's on the verge of snapping. Amy laying on her horn after they almost collide in the parking lot of a hardware store ends up being the final straw for a guy who's tired of life getting the better of him. The subsequent car chase, as they speed through the streets of suburban Los Angeles in broad daylight, is a thrilling and absurd way to kick off. Amy ends up driving home without Danny seeing her face behind the window of her big SUV (he mistakenly believes she must be a man), and that's the end of it. Or it would be, if he could just manage to move on.
That corrosive connection between Danny and Amy, built entirely on unbridled fury, is something that Beef gets really, really right. Danny, a struggling contractor who's trying to help his parents move from Korea to America, is affronted by the idea that someone could be so rude and get away with it. Amy, a successful entrepreneur whose marriage has gone stale, tries to put it behind her, though she does keep checking the comments under a video a neighbor captured of the incident to make sure no one has identified her. When the two finally reunite, it's under false pretenses, ending with Danny revenge urinating all over Amy's bathroom. What ensues is less a game of cat and mouse than a game of cat and cat; both parties have their incredibly sharp claws out, and they'll do anything, no matter how dramatic, to get back at each other.
The mundanity of their squabble never stops being funny, and the depth comes from the vivid parallels Beef draws between Danny and Amy. They're both lost and lonely enough to throw themselves headfirst into a situation that, for better or worse, adds some excitement to their middling lives. Of course their feud has consequences, bleeding out to affect those who orbit them, like Danny's meandering younger brother Paul (Young Mazino) and Amy's clueless husband George (Joseph Lee), but it's not enough to stop them from trying again and again to force a collision. They make for a cataclysmic pair of soulmates, and it's fascinating to watch a show about a non-romantic, non-sexual entanglement between a man and a woman. Yeun and Wong have the kind of electric, venomous chemistry that makes you feel like you're watching something special, and I wanted the series to put them in the same room more often to give viewers more opportunities to watch those sparks fly. (The sight gag of Danny saving Amy's contact in his phone under the name "That Bitch" is a good bit, though.)
That's where Beef's biggest issue arises — there is simply too much happening. It's a show trying to balance a whole lot of ideas at once: Asian American identity, marriage politics, family dynamics, class differences, and the concept of women having it all, to name just a few. Beef gets bogged down when it shifts focus to its slightly undercooked side plots, like the one with Danny's convict cousin Isaac (David Choe), or Amy's ongoing sale of her plant store to Jordan (Maria Bello), an exorbitantly wealthy investor. These side plots aren't without their interesting details, like Amy's experience with repeated instances of casual racism in the workplace, but Beef has too much going on to ever commit to exploring them fully. You're frequently left wondering where it's all headed and wishing the series would get back to the good stuff.
"The good stuff" boils down to Yeun and Wong. Yeun especially is exquisite here; we live in an incredible time for pathetic guys on TV, and his increasingly hapless Danny fits right in among all the Kendall Roys and Carmy Berzattos. He loves his family deeply but is too addicted to making bad decisions to ever really do right by them. Yeun is captivating as a man at the absolute end of his rope, and watching him tear into the material is a pleasure. It doesn't hurt that he also gets most of the truly laugh-out-loud lines ("Western therapy doesn't work on Eastern minds"). Wong, who is one of the best at twisting her face into an enraged expression, is most compelling when Amy's veneer of calm professionalism splinters and she can truly go balls to the wall. Mazino and Patti Yasutake give wonderful supporting performances, but the series shines brightest when Yeun and Wong are attempting to rip out each other's throats.
Ultimately, Beef has a lot going for it. It's a bold swing of a show — the swift tonal shift of the final two episodes that I won't spoil here (and, honestly, probably couldn't if I tried) is jarring but well-executed. Visually, it's uniquely stylish, creating a handful of surreal images that are sure to stick with you, and boasts an excellent soundtrack (respect to any piece of media that sets a pivotal scene to Björk's "All Is Full of Love"). You also have to appreciate the way the series doesn't spell anything out for the audience, and it's easy to imagine many debates about what it all meant. Episode titles are derived from existentialist musings by Werner Herzog, Joseph Campbell, Iris Murdoch, and more; Episode 7, called "I Am a Cage," references the Franz Kafka quote, "I am a cage, in search of a bird." It's surely a nod to Danny and Amy, both cages, empty and unfulfilled, before they found each other. Beef throws a lot of ideas at the wall to varying degrees of effectiveness, but it sticks its landing by reiterating its core theme, which is that life is hard and often terrible, and the most you can hope for is finding someone who really gets you despite it all.
Premieres: Thursday, April 6 on Netflix
Who's in it: Steven Yeun, Ali Wong, Joseph Lee, Young Mazino, David Choe, Patti Yasutake
Who's behind it: Lee Sung Jin (Dave, Silicon Valley), Jake Schreier (Paper Towns)
For fans of: Half-hour dramas, pathetic men
How many episodes we watched: 10 out of 10