Amy (Ali Wong), a prosperous Calabasas lifestyle entrepreneur, orders something on a lazy date night with her model-handsome husband (Joseph Lee). It’s also not the thin-sliced Korean barbecue that struggling building contractor Danny (Steven Yeun) cooks outside his run-down Los Angeles apartment building. This is the kind of dispute Amy and Danny have after a road-rage incident in a parking lot turns into a long-running, weirdly life-affirming feud – and Amy’s white whale of an SUV becomes a target of Moby Dick-style fixation.
Under normal conditions, Danny and Amy would have no reason to interact. Yes, they’re both east Asian thirtysomethings living in Los Angeles, but Amy’s world consists of glamorous gallery openings, a self-designed display home, and negotiating multimillion-dollar transactions. Danny’s universe consists of Burger King chicken sandwiches, small-time scams, and a Korean church band. Amy would probably not pay Danny to clear her drains. Not with those Yelp reviews.
Beef, like its protagonists, struggles to establish an instant emotional connection, and for good reason. The difficult-to-categorize script is neither comedy nor drama, but it is also not one of the low-energy Los Angeles dramedies that streaming services have transformed from a quirky cottage industry to a mass export good. It’s a gloomy, existential thriller about cynical people dealing with a deep inner grief. This, despite numerous genuinely funny pieces of dialogue, does not easily transfer into light entertainment. However, when marinated in author Lee Sung Jin’s distinct perspective and tenderised by surprising plot turns, this Beef quickly becomes a delicacy to appreciate.
If you’re familiar with Wong and Yeun’s work, Beef’s quality will come as no surprise. He is a Walking Dead alum who has starred in critically acclaimed films in the United States (Nope, Minari) and South Korea (Burning). She is the standup comedian whose irreverent, feminist perspectives on family life – particularly her most recent, pre-divorce Netflix special – make her an ideal choice for Amy, a woman whose secret stress reliever involves masturbating with a gun. They had previously collaborated on the bird-based cartoon Tuca & Bertie (Wong voiced song thrush Bertie, Yeun played Bertie’s robin boyfriend Speckle, and Lee wrote the script), but never on a project requiring such clear personal engagement.
Beef also proudly wears the imprint of achingly cool indie film company A24 and achieves at least one moment of psychedelic-enhanced, soul-swapping bliss, similar to A24’s recent Oscar-winner Everything Everywhere All at Once. Beef’s existential hunger, however, is more akin to Herzogian angst than hotdog fingers. The episode titles are The Rapture of Being Alive and The Birds Don’t Sing, They Screech in Pain, and each title card features unique artwork by artist and former Vice TV contributor David Choe (who also co-stars as Danny’s criminally inclined cousin Isaac). Without a doubt, the beef-themed additions to A24’s highly sought-after merchandise line will be released soon.
In these very therapeutic times, the assumption is that we do the work, find balance, and process any extreme emotions in a healthy, balanced manner. That must be especially true if you come from a Zen-influenced society and live in southern California’s wellness hotbed. “I’m so sick of smiling, dude,” Danny confesses at one point. But he also knows that any temporary mask-slip will be recorded by someone’s Ring video doorbell, posted on Nextdoor, and shared on social media indefinitely.
Despite their differences, Amy and Danny are joined by an irrepressible desire to revolt against this self-imposed, 24-hour surveillance. And if you think their proclivity for petty grievances and questionable decision-making is strongly established in the first few episodes, just wait till you see what happens later. In the midst of this amusing turmoil, there is also the thrillingly subversive suggestion that pelting it full-throttle down the fury superhighway may be the most direct route to feeling alive again, regardless of what your therapist says.