Steven Yeun and Ali Wong master the art of petty revenge in Lee Sung Jin’s ‘Beef’
This review of Beef is based off of Episode 1 and 2, which had its World Premiere at SXSW 2023.
If you’ve lived in Los Angeles, or really, any metropolitan area in the United States, you’ll know that road rage is a real, palpable thing. Maybe someone cuts you off on the highway, merges into your lane without signalling, or just plain sucks at driving. In most of these cases, it’s probably best to just let it go and tell whoever’s willing to listen about the “psycho on the highway who cut you off” later on, immortalizing their dumb ass in oral tradition. That’s called taking the high road, as some may say. But what if… you don’t want to let it go?
That’s the very kind of road rage incident that kicks off showrunner Lee Sung Jin’s Netflix-distributed, A24-produced series Beef. A near car accident in a sunny Southern California parking lot sets off a cavalcade of events that is at times darkly funny and at others, thrilling. Though the initial offending event doesn’t directly cause a car crash, it may as well have, pitting two people from different worlds against each other in one glorious, catastrophic battle.
In this corner of the ring is Danny Cho (Steven Yeun), the down-on-his-luck handyman struggling to make ends meet. Due to a series of bad business decisions and some troubles with the family, he’s hit a rough patch and seems eager to find an escape from his downtrodden position. In the other corner is Amy Lau (Ali Wong), a housewife to a rising artist who has to answer to her even more famous and successful artist mother-in-law. Immediately, it’s made clear that she’s similarly trapped in a situation in a different way, meticulously chained down by her family and the gray, caged labyrinth that is her home. Unlike Danny, however, Amy seems to be on the verge of closing a business deal that can give her renewed purpose in life. But one can’t shake the feeling that there’s a deep-seated feeling of discontent lurking beneath her chipper exterior. It’s those lurking dark feelings that largely drive the exciting drama of the first two episodes.
Though it’s fun to take Beef at face-value as a road rage fantasy (that guy who cut me off will finally get what they deserve!), the first two episodes break free from the expectations of what that revenge looks like. There’s a primal rage within all of us that Beef taps into. Those slight injustices that most of us are forced to forgive in our day-to-day lives are blown up out of proportion. Taking control and retaining power become major factors in driving the narrative. Within the first episode itself that much quickly becomes clear — at one point Amy feels herself up with a handgun and Danny tries to take control of his own life by going out on his own terms. As Danny and Amy start to feel the weight of the downward spiral of discontent in their personal lives, they concurrently start to find joy in enacting petty revenge fantasies against each other.
It would be so easy for the series to turn into a violent revenge thriller (which I would also advocate for… who doesn’t want to see Yeun and Wong tackle such roles?), but Beef turns anger into a calculated artform. The jabs that the two take at each other are deliciously petty, and when they do it it’s the happiest they are on-screen. Both Yeun and Wong play their characters with a devilish glee, bringing sharp laughs accompanied by jaw-dropping moments of shock and awe. Their characters, Danny and Amy, are a wonderful foil to Speckle and Bertie, the charming couple that the two play on the animated show Tuca and Bertie (of which Lee Sung Jin has also written for). One could say that between these two on-stage roles, Yeun and Wong have covered nearly the whole dynamic range of emotions that two people can feel. It’s also worth noting that the series’ cast of Asian Americans from two different social classes are an added bonus to the whole spectacle, creating an added affront to the idea of a complacent, rule-following model minority that is rarely allowed to emit this kind of rage on-screen.
At the heart of the series, Lee’s show is about two people who feel like they’ve lost control of their lives… the road rage incident is merely an excuse for Danny and Amy to act out and achieve catharsis by destruction — hypothetically repositioning themselves behind the steering wheel. After all, when your life is veering way off track, wouldn’t you want to be the one to take control in the driver’s seat once again? As things start to escalate between the two parties, you really can’t look away — it’s a slow motion car crash that you can’t avert your eyes from.
Episodes 1 and 2 of Beef were reviewed in-person by Li-Wei Chu as part of its world premiere at SXSW 2023. No further episodes were taken into account when writing this review.
Season One of Beef is out on Netflix on April 6, 2023.
Li-Wei Chu is the chief editor of From the Intercom. When he’s not editing drafts and searching for new artists to cover for the website, he loves watching cult films, cooking, and listening to his ever-growing collection of vinyl records. You can follow him on LetterBoxd and make fun of his taste in movies here!