In ‘Beef,’ Ali Wong and Steven Yeun Rage Through Modern American Anxiety
Los Angeles is like a microcosm of so many of this country’s contradictions. The immensely wealthy live in close proximity to the struggling working class. Take public transportation and you face Dantenean images of homelessness while the privileged cruise by in their Teslas. What the various social strata all seem to have in common is the feeling of being on the edge. Netflix’s “Beef” is a high-octane revenge thriller that is all about American stress. We are bombarded daily by economic pressure which is then exasperated by technology. This sharp, raging series feels like a dark fantasy that is effective because it’s believable.
Creator Lee Sung Jin doesn’t go down the usual clichéd routes of suburban despair. He focuses on L.A.’s Asian-American community. First we meet Danny (Steven Yeun), a Korean-American contractor who is getting by doing handyman jobs and feeling the sting of his parents having to move back to South Korea, mostly because of an illegal business deal that took place at their former motel. After failing to return certain items to a big-box store, a seething Danny gets into a typical road rage situation that quickly escalates. The other driver is Amy (Ali Wong), who lives in Calabasas and is married to artist George (Joseph Lee). Though the incident ends short of actual violence, it leaves Danny in a vengeful mood, augmented by the daily hassles he faces from ungrateful clients. He also watches over his younger brother, Paul (Young Mazino), who plays video games all day and relies on crypto wealth fantasies. When a final straw pushes Danny to hit back at Amy, their lives will come to various, and at times intimate, clashes.
“Beef” is unique in multiple ways aside from its story. A co-production with A24, who just scored a Best Picture Oscar for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” it’s rich but not pretentious. Episodes clock in at about 33 minutes, which is surprising when many new shows feel they have to be an hour long. There is that typical A24 touch in details, such as the titles which have names like “I Am Inhabited by a Cry,” and are laid over artwork at the beginning of each episode. Though don’t mistake this for an artsy slow burner. “Beef” is driven by the boiling turmoil of its characters. In essence, their anxieties are the anxieties of an entire generation.
A lesser series would throw in a classic instigator to justify a thirst for payback. This show is more about how sudden, rash decisions can cause downward spirals. Danny could have easily just driven around Amy, but he hates not being his own boss and being looked down at by upper middle class clients always trying to lower his rate. He sees his brother as a slacker who needs to grow up. The bank won’t give him a loan and his cousin, Isaac (David Choe), is shady, and partly responsible for his parents having to leave the country. Having some rich woman like Amy relentlessly blow her horn at him because he almost backed his truck into her Mercedes just makes Danny’s mind snap. It’s not all about class war. Amy too has her own crushing stresses. Her overflowing phone is constantly reminding her of business responsibilities, personal commitments, and a marriage that is becoming increasingly unhappy. When she sees that George liked a picture of her employee, Mia, in a bikini on Instagram, her insecurity radar isn’t off. George, who grew up wealthy and is still stuck in the shadow of his late father’s artistic success, now lives off of Amy’s hard work and acts oblivious to her struggles and constant need to hustle to maintain their posh lifestyle.
Danny and Amy’s standoff then evolves into a complicated, though not confusing, thread of connections. Danny strikes first by charming his way into Amy’s house under false pretenses and urinates all over her fancy bathroom floor. She then firebombs his company’s Yelp page. But when she attempts to pull off a catfishing scheme on social media, it actually brings her close to Paul, who seems like he might be the genuinely nice guy she is lacking in her life. The impulse towards instant gratification is always there to distract us. Just when it seems that Danny might find some inner peace by attending church, he makes other wild choices, like boldly interrupting a seminar where Amy is a speaker. She’s not immune to wanting to punch back, hard. “Beef” can be cathartic in how it lets off steam for an audience who can certainly feel like pieces of these characters on a daily basis.
Throughout “Beef” subtle details about the Asian-American experience and general social trends add to its addictive tone. Danny, desperate for funds, buys into the Crypto craze. His comfort food is Burger King, which he stress eats alone on a parcel of land he wants to purchase that overlooks the city. Amy feels entrapped by a life that’s a façade. She knows her daughter isn’t getting the attention she needs. George believes all the solutions are in mindfulness training and eco-friendly activities. Their friends are mostly surface people, like billionaire socialite Jordan (Maria Bello), who collects royal headdresses from various cultures and offers George $100,000 for a chair that he, at first, refuses to sell. Jordan’s moments of comic relief are hilariously low-key, such as when she doesn’t get what she wants she abruptly excuses herself because she needs to attend a friend’s open house in Nepal. There’s also a bit of “The White Lotus” in how sexual frustration is used to explore contemporary loneliness. The story begins to unfold when we see George masturbating in private to Mia’s social media profile.
A series like “Beef” can be enjoyed on many levels. Before focusing on how it dissects the modern American psyche, it’s vastly entertaining as a twisted thriller driven by impulse. Neither Danny nor Amy are heroic. Instead, each harbor deep secrets and feelings of inadequacy. We can root for one or the other out of certain preferences, but they are both victims of their own choices. With a dark comedic tone, “Beef” ponders what can drive people to the brink of madness, as we watch both Amy’s and Danny’s lives unravel. On a deeper level, it’s a series that dramatizes how amid social divisions, we are all boiling under pressure in the same image-driven, overly-stressed society. Danny is willing to risk it all to achieve financial success. Amy is financially successful but stuck in an unfulfilled life. Both feel broken and alone. Throwing up a middle finger and going on a rampage seems like the only way to cope, even when they achieve what they thought they wanted.
“Beef” season one begins streaming April 6 on Netflix.