In BEEF, two strangers cross paths during a road rage incident, becoming enemies for life. Lee Sung Jin’s (Dave, Undone) new series is about an escalating conflict where two people refuse to back down, leading to acts of revenge that become more dangerous with each new strike. While this is the perfect concept for a wacky dark comedy that invites the audience to laugh at the situation’s absurdity, BEEF offers a slow-burn story where things take their due time to set every player in the game before things truly get out of hand. While BEEF’s initial pacing might push some people away, those willing to stick around will get what they came for. That’s because the Netflix series rewards patient viewers with a layered exploration of mental health, human morality, and how everyday chaos shapes our lives.
BEEF tells the story of Amy (Ali Wong) and Danny (Steven Yeun), two people from very different backgrounds whose lives get intertwined after a simple parking dispute. Amy is a successful businesswoman trying to sell her company so that she might finally have time for her husband, George (Joseph Lee), and her daughter, Junie (Remy Holt). On the other hand, Danny is struggling with odd jobs while dreaming about building a home for his parents, who were forced to move back to South Korea a few years ago. She is about to become a millionaire, while he has been living from hand to mouth. At first glance, Amy and Danny couldn’t be more different. However, as BEEF slowly underlines, the two enemies are more likely than they might think — and that’s exactly why they feed their grudge, regardless of who they hurt along the way.
From the first episode, BEEF underlines how Amy and Danny deal with depression and anger management. Amy likes to smile and pretend she can have it all, while there’s a hole in her heart she cannot fill with money, motherhood, or a loving husband. Danny’s life is hanging by a thread as the prospect of paying his bills slips through his fingers. Although both characters need to take a hard look in the mirror and wonder why they feel like they do, they prefer to blame everyone else for their problems. That’s why it’s so easy for them to lose their temper and focus all their energy on their beef, convinced that their misery is always caused by each other. Meanwhile, they will lie, cheat, and manipulate those close to them, justifying their terrible actions as a necessary evil to get revenge.
By framing the story around characters from different walks of life, BEEF wants to show how mental health issues can equally disrupt the life of the poor and the wealthy. That doesn’t mean the series takes a cynical stance about money and happiness, as Danny’s material struggle gives him a clear disadvantage in the face of Amy. In fact, the series goes to great lengths to show how material pressures make some bad choices easier to take. As much as mental health is a complex issue, one that BEEF refuses to wrongly simplify, Lee is well-aware that struggling to make ends meet only makes things harder for some people.
One of the biggest strengths of BEEF is there are no absolute villains and heroes in the story. Every character is just a human being — broken, beaten, and trying to do the best with the cards that have been dealt. Even if the main characters’ self-centered worldview can lead them to make questionable choices more often than other people, BEEF still finds the time to explore how everyone is the fruit of their life experiences, and the angriest person has been slowly shaped into the awful self they turn out to be. Of course, it comes to a point where we all have to take responsibility for our actions, including Amy and Danny. Even so, it’s much harder to vilify a character once we see the many layers that compose their psyche.
Such a complicated take on human lives could only be successful with a cast capable of rising to the occasion and bringing BEEF’s wonderful characters to life. Fortunately, BEEF has two powerhouses as leads. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say Yeun and Wong deliver the best performance of their lives, which is saying a lot, considering both stars’ prolific careers. The entire supporting cast should also be praised, as Lee has found ways to lean into each actor’s strengths to build a fantastic ensemble of flawed characters. David Choe is delightful every time he shows up as soft-hearted mobster Isaac Cho, and the role of Paul should give Young Mazino the breakout opportunity he deserves. Maria Bello also seems to be having a lot of fun playing cut-throat zen capitalist Jordan. There are so many nuggets of brilliancy spread across BEEF’s ten episodes that it’s hard to highlight just a few.
While BEEF is without question a strong debut, and we can’t wait to see more of these characters in the future, viewers should nevertheless manage their expectations in order to enjoy the show to its fullest. BEEF’s pacing can be too slow for the first few episodes, as Amy and Danny test the grounds of what they can do to enact their vengeance. All the independent story threads are eventually tied together, and some of the final episodes of BEEF are among the best dramatic television ever brought us. Still, it might take some time for the series to finally click, a side effect of its unique perspective and unexpected tone. However, once BEEF finds its footing, it becomes a delicious drama with shocking turns, capable of dealing with complex themes with both levity and grace.
BEEF had its world premiere with its first two episodes at this year’s SXSW festival. BEEF’s entire season will drop on Netflix on April 6.