The laws of common courtesy tell us that we shouldn’t hold a grudge, but what the law doesn’t account for is that it can be really, really fun to do it. Is there no delight to be found in pettiness? After all, asserting intellectual dominance over inferior people is the engine that drives Twitter to this very day. However, it’s all up to a point; eventually, one side gives in and the heat dispels. But what if it didn’t? What if both people were so hellbent on destroying each other that they wound up destroying other people in the process?
This combination of twisted joy and utter devastation makes for an intoxicating back and forth in Beef, the masterful new series from established television writer Lee Sung Jin (also credited as Sonny Lee). This latest–and greatest–Netflix Original sees the emergence of not just a brilliant new talent but a vision so wholly-realized that the viewing experience is nothing short of thrilling.
To discuss the story in too much detail would risk exposing what is a delicately layered time bomb. However, the gist should be enough to entice any suspecting viewer. Two strangers engage in an incident of road rage, both desperately ambitious entrepreneurs: Amy (Ali Wong), who is reaching peak success, and Danny (Steven Yeun), who is struggling to even scale the mountain. Danny almost backs into Amy as he attempts to pull out of a parking spot, which leads Amy to flip him the bird and drive away. Danny, provoked at the wrong place at the wrong time, becomes obsessed with revenge and pursues Amy further. What begins as a trade-off of petty pranks quickly escalates into invasions of their personal and professional lives, building up to a finale more explosive than could ever be predicted.
It’s hard to believe that this is Lee’s first project as a creator and showrunner. Surely his experiences writing for comedies like Silicon Valley and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia will prepare you for what is a darkly delicious comedy with several iconic, laugh-out-loud lines. However, it is the show’s dramatic underbelly that really impresses. Lee takes a devilishly entertaining saga of one-upmanship and uses it to crack open two psychologically complex character portraits.
Both Amy and Danny are people constantly trying to prove themselves to a society, and family, that they believe has undervalued them; however, in their pursuits, they have lost touch with their inner selves as well as their ability to empathize with others. As their protective walls come crumbling down, in ways both intentional and not, the intricate maintenance of their fractured family and social lives unravels, as do their psyches.
Prestige TV fans will likely come to the series for Steven Yeun, an actor who continues to understand the assignment time and time again, but they will stay for Ali Wong, a dynamite comedienne who has officially solidified herself as a breathtaking dramatic talent. Her commitment to Amy’s darker edges without losing the softness in her sadness runs a gamut of emotions and is incredibly engrossing. She is fully aware of the character’s tie-in to her comedic persona, which she sprinkles in to excellent effect, but it goes far beyond that artifice to become something wholly distinct from her previous work. In combination with Yeun’s constantly on-edge balancing act of modern machismo-driven confidence and self-loathing despair, the two bounce off of each other with ease.
Surely inspired by Asian-American experience but not without universal touchpoints of capitalist tribalism and generational trauma, Lee’s entire ensemble have curves and edges that make them all endlessly compelling to watch as well as incredibly easy to sympathize with despite their questionable actions. It’s what makes this initially humble revenge drama grow into an emotionally-charged mini-epic.
As each subplot is strung together and as the consequences go deeper and deeper, the drama becomes absolutely addictive, much like the characters’ toxic tendencies. Once viewers finally reach the show’s audacious, cathartic, if somewhat stilted finale, it becomes clear, beyond any doubt, that Beef will remain one of the year’s best shows and a singularly exciting experience in prestige storytelling.
Beef premiered as part of the TV Premieres section at SXSW 2023. The entire season will premiere exclusively on Netflix April 6.
Lee Sung Jin's masterful writing, in combination with Ali Wong and Steven Yeun's breathtaking performances, makes for one of the year's best shows.
Larry Fried is a filmmaker, writer, and podcaster based in New Jersey. He is the host and creator of the podcast “My Favorite Movie is…,” a podcast dedicated to helping filmmakers make somebody’s next favorite movie. He is also the Visual Content Manager for Special Olympics New Jersey, an organization dedicated to competition and training opportunities for athletes with intellectual disabilities across the Garden State.