It takes a certain strength of stomach to tune in to Beef, the new Netflix series starring Steven Yeun and comedian Ali Wong. The characters these two play, to put it bluntly, are mad as hell, and they aren’t going to take it anymore. Ignited by a road-rage incident that involves them both, they erupt into a conflagration of aggression, directing their ire at the villain they have made the other out to be. Subsequent perceived slights (or obvious attacks) are met with escalating retaliation, leading to a domino effect of bad decisions. If some entertainment (think Analyze This or The Office) can make for an uncomfortable watch by invoking a visceral awkwardness, this show offers an even more heightened form of visceral viewing. It made my skin crawl—and I couldn’t turn away.
Beef begins when a down-and-out contractor, Danny Cho (played by a truly amazing Yeun), almost backs his pickup truck into the luxury SUV driven by Amy Lau (Wong) in the parking lot of a Home Depot–like supply store. It’s an experience most of us have had, and most of us will recognise the fiery surge of fury that such an encounter can elicit: How dare you, anonymous idiot behind your killing machine of a vehicle, threaten my well-being?! That kind of interaction was also the subject of a brilliant recent SNL skit with Quinta Brunson, parodying the antics involved when people yell at one another from within the hermetically sealed compartments of their cars. Not to be too much of a downer, but this sort of isn’t a laughing matter: Road-rage incidents (including ones that result in shootings) have been up dramatically in recent years. Chalk it up to the long antisocial tail of the pandemic, but many of us, it seems, are teetering at the edge.
The characters in Beef are teetering in their own ways. Danny is the more obvious victim of society’s inequalities, and in many ways he’s the more sympathetic case. His parents have lost the motel they ran for decades due to some less-than-kosher dealings with a shady cousin (a delightful David Choe) and have been forced to move back to Korea. His contracting business can’t seem to get off the ground (most likely because he isn’t a very good handyman), and his aimless brother is taking up space in his apartment, making bad bets on crypto.
Amy, on the other hand, seems to have it more or less figured out: She has a handsome sculptor husband, a cute preschool-age tot, a house that could have featured in the pages of Dwell magazine, and a boutique business marketing Asian-ish houseplants and other tchotchkes that is about to be purchased by the Home Depot–like behemoth, making her very, very rich. But she pities more than loves her husband, her relationship with her daughter is predicated on candy bribes, and when her mother-in-law digs at her interior-design choices, you sense Amy barely has the will to defend her very expensive house. Why has she even worked so hard to achieve her professional success? What has it gained her? It’s not clear.
So what, you might say—clearly one character has a harder hill to climb. But the show plays with your allegiances, bouncing you between the characters and demonstrating, in the process, what fine actors Wong and especially Yeun are—both with an ability to command your attention even when they are plumbing the basest depths of their characters. You root for them at the same time that you loathe them. You also begin to ask if there is something fundamentally flawed about the framework through which these characters are measuring their slights. One has worked hard and feels that her just deserts are being threatened; the other has worked hard and feels aggrieved at his failure to attain material success. The fact that both are miserable suggests either that the poison lives deeper within them or that it’s actually more pervasive and universal.
A24—the production company known for indie originals like Minari and Lady Bird—produced this show, and it has the aesthetic finesse of many of that company’s productions. Title cards look like they might have been designed by Maurizio Cattelan; the episode titles have a Dada poetry. (“The Birds Don’t Sing, They Screech in Pain” is the name of the first.) The clothes in Beef are particularly evocative. Danny’s Old Navy–esque short-sleeve button-down, which he wears to church when he’s making a half-hearted attempt to scrub his conscience (and secure some contracting jobs in the meantime), might as well be something he’s had since high school, an emblem of arrested development. Amy dresses in a creamy array of Rachel Comey– or Eileen Fisher–eque loose linens that convey none of those designers’ zen. This is a show that looks good on the surface and leaves you deeper and darker depths to think about.
This article was originally published on Vogue.com.