There are certain everyday indignities for which there is no justice, no balancing of the karmic scales: rudeness from strangers, wasted time on hold or in a waiting room, casual sexism or racism, getting cut off in line or in traffic. For a person tuned to the frequency of loss rather than gain, the desire to just once get what you think you’re owed can spin out of control quickly, and under those circumstances, a middle finger aimed out a car window can be construed as a declaration of war.
Lee Sung Jin’s limited Netflix series Beef uses that gesture to fling us straight into the trenches of modern American malaise, with Steven Yeun and Ali Wong on opposite sides of a midlife crisis that blows up into an increasingly violent existential duel. Watching Beef’s ten episodes, which premiere all at once on April 6, is like picking at a scab or pushing on the edge of a bruise — a paradoxically pleasurable sensation of anxiety and satisfaction — and Yeun and Wong’s vibrating, hostile chemistry makes for engaging feel-bad TV that critiques the very notion of inner peace.
Beef’s initial setup is deceptively simple for a series that, over the course of ten episodes, takes a wide turn into harrowing, almost Lynchian territory. After an altercation in the parking lot of a big-box store turns into a crazed chase through bougie Calabasas, California, Amy Lau (Wong) and Danny Cho (Yeun) see in each other the embodiment of everything wrong with their lives. Danny resents Amy’s wealth and assumes she’s a bored housewife, while Amy considers Danny a sexist hothead who can’t abide a woman making decisions for herself. In reality, Amy is a self-made small-business owner who supports her artist husband, George (Joseph Lee), and worries about the distance her constant grinding has put between herself and her young daughter. (The echoes between Amy’s fictional life and Wong’s stand-up persona are noticeable.) Danny, meanwhile, is an eldest son desperate to make enough money to move his parents back from Korea, frustrated with his younger brother Paul’s (Young Mazino) lack of interest in work, and precariously under the sway of scheming cousin Isaac (David Choe), who may be the reason Danny’s parents lost their motel and had to leave the country. Both have something to lose if their involvement in the viral road-rage incident is revealed: For Amy, it’s the multimillion-dollar sale of her company, and Danny risks his newfound acceptance in a church group and Korean community he felt alienated from after his parents’ business failure.
Amy’s and Danny’s initial judgments of each other are broadly correct (Amy clocks the men’s-rights edge to Danny’s resentment, while he senses that she uses money as a shield), but their opinions are tied up in their own shame, guilt, and self-hatred. Beef has a specific interest in the gap between our public and private selves, and that tension reveals Amy and Danny as self-destructive mirrors. Both are teetering at the precipice of a midlife crisis, failing to abide by happiness as the social default, and it doesn’t take much to push them into free-floating despair.
It may sound like a miserable watch if you believe Amy and Danny are miserable. But Beef is careful to present them as sometimes quite justified in their disdain for the way people for whom contentment comes easily, and perhaps undeservedly, can be cavalier about others’ hardships. There’s catharsis, then, in watching Amy and Danny strategize and conspire against such people until Beef tiptoes over the anti-hero line and dares us to consider how much villainy we’ll tolerate. It’s a balancing act of tone and theme aided by Yeun’s and Wong’s harmoniously brusque, often hilariously mean performances; the show is rarely better than when they’re sneering insults into each other’s faces. Danny’s is the more richly written part, and Yeun gives him a slippery interiority that makes a scene in which he performs the Incubus song “Drive” at a church prayer session more sinister than inspirational. (There are also needle drops by the Offspring, Collective Soul, Tori Amos, Bush, and the Smashing Pumpkins because For All Mankind and Yellowjackets don’t have exclusive rights to ’90s bangers.) But Wong is commanding too; some of her line deliveries are so sharp they suggest shards of glass ricocheting from her soul into ours.
There’s a juvenile element to Amy and Danny’s zealous dive into immature one-upmanship — his urinating all over her renovated bathroom, her bombarding his business with negative Yelp reviews — and the series tends to mine grim comedy out of its characters’ basest moments, from masturbation to vomit. (A weird amount of vomit, actually.) But Beef needs those puncturing scenes of awkwardness and humiliation because it’s otherwise so committed to dragging viewers onto its wavelength of overwhelming exasperation. What is the effect of being told by the people who are supposed to know us best that we should let grievances slide, go high when they go low, or be grateful instead of honest? The answer is in the blank look that slides over Wong’s face when George tells Amy how lucky they are, as if she hasn’t worked for years to secure their top-income-tax-bracket status; in the slump of Yeun’s shoulders when Paul tells his older brother he should “just live,” as though the two of them would somehow survive without Danny’s scrimping and saving. How demoralizing is it to be told over and over that you’re living the wrong way?
Amy and Danny both utter some version of “It’s always fucking something” when faced with one of the daily inconveniences that embody for them life’s inherent unfairness. Beef makes a lot of something out of what, to most people, would be nothing and is so empathetic to Amy’s and Danny’s discontent that it makes their excruciating self-involvement not just tolerable but captivating. At times, the series coasts on repetitive themes as the pair dig themselves into ever deeper pits of resentment, but by miniseries’ end, that wallowing feels like Beef is making an intentional point: Our society isn’t set up to accept unhappiness but rather to ignore it, obfuscate it, cast it out — an ouroboros of disregard that threatens to consume all who dare to ask of life, “Is this all there is?”