“It’s always fucking something.” These are the words that protagonist Danny Cho (Steven Yeun) mutters to himself in the cab of his truck at the beginning of Beef Episode 1 – and, at first, you feel bad for him. You empathize with him: it is always something, you think to yourself, remembering everything that has ever gone wrong in your life. Soon, though, it becomes clear that Danny might play a more active role in his own misfortune than he’s willing to give himself credit for. He carries a lot of pent-up frustration, guilt, and fear throughout the show; but, because he’s always working to provide, he doesn’t have the time or the energy to release it in healthy ways.
Immediately after, we meet Amy Lau Nakai (Ali Wong), the owner of a boutique plant store in Los Angeles. Amy appears to be everything Danny is not – she’s rich (and soon to be even richer); she’s successful; she owns a home; she’s in a stable, loving relationship; she has a young daughter. Amy has everything Danny wishes he had and more. And yet, she’s still a deeply unsatisfied person. She’s been working her whole life to make it to where she is when Beef begins; despite popular capitalist mythology, though, where she is doesn’t mean she’s made it. Amy’s business has made her plenty of money and left her with little time to enjoy it. She begins to resent her husband George (Joseph Lee), feeling that he’s not receptive of her negativity. And although she seems to be more aware of her self-sabatoging tendencies than Danny is of his, Amy is still unable to stop causing trouble for herself and her family.
This is what unites the two characters and drives Netflix’s Beef forward. Danny wants to feel like he’s in control, totally on top of his shit; but straining for that control leaves him tangled in a mess of embezzlement, robbery, and accidental kidnapping. Amy’s life is too controlled, so she seeks a release by starting a childish feud out of the road rage incident that also starts the whole show. Beef does a great job showing the many ways in which modernity creates an emotionally claustrophobic environment for everyone.
Steven Yeun and Ali Wong both deliver incredible performances. They’re only able to shine, though, because the rest of the cast also operates at its highest ability. Young Mazino, who plays Danny’s crypto-enthusiast younger brother Paul, is a particular standout. Mazino brings a boyish, jock-like nonchalance to Paul that juxtaposes nicely with Danny’s neurotic, controlling tendencies, but where Mazino really excels is in Paul’s tender moments. They’re small and subtle, but Mazino’s ability to bring out Paul’s complex love-hate relationship with Danny is what elevates him past a flat, stereotypical jock and turn him into a well-rounded, believable twenty-something-year-old trying to figure life out.
The rest of the cast is similarly strong. David Choe’s portrayal of Danny and Paul’s shady cousin Isaac makes the character a particularly menacing antagonist, especially in later episodes. Lee’s George is adorably naïve when we first meet him, though we then begin to resent him as we see how he stifles Amy emotionally. As Beef Season 1 progresses, we likewise see how each character massages and shapes Danny and Amy into their messy selves – and are prompted to question how much of what Danny and Amy are is actually their fault. And while the supporting characters poke at and widen the cracks in our protagonists, they’re also able to bring out Danny and Amy’s best qualities. The result is a pair of protagonists who are nuanced and complex. The two feel like real people because their relationships with everyone around them feel real. Had anyone in the supporting cast not been up to the challenge, Beef certainly wouldn’t be as great as it is.
So much of what Beef is able to achieve throughout its 10 episodes is also due to creator and writer Lee Sung Jun’s incredible command of the show’s characters and pacing. The first thing that struck me while watching Beef was how quickly we get thrown into the action: Episode 1 hasn’t even hit the five minute mark before we’ve been introduced to Danny, Amy, and their conflict. Even Beef‘s slowest scenes – a string of business discussions between Amy and Jordana (Maria Bello), the home improvement mogul looking to buy Amy’s boutique plant store – serve to build out the world these people occupy.
Beef Episodes 1 through 9 are non-stop, the characters’ problems growing bigger and bigger until the inevitable explosion of everything. Unfortunately, I didn’t say “Episodes 1 through 10.” The final episode of Beef Season 1 is where the show stumbles; it’s essentially forty minutes of falling action and resolution in which Danny and Amy find themselves lost in the wilds of Calabasas and have to work together to survive.
Even here, though, the pair share some great moments. When they start reverting to the childlike behavior that began their feud, Danny screams at Amy to “use nice words.” Eventually, Amy breaks Danny’s arm, forcing him to scavenge for berries; after that, they settle down and manage to talk to one another. It’s actually something of a rarity for Beef, which mostly shows Danny and Amy as adversaries who try to get at each other through their friends and family. When Beef Episode 10 dedicates its entire run time to the two of them in each other’s company, it feels big. It should have been be big. But the emotional beats that the episode develops are too-often undercut by its (sometimes) comic sequences of Danny and Amy vomiting or tripping out of their minds.
To be fair, comedy’s a big part of Beef. The whole premise of the show is funny: two strangers prank one another until things go too far. And then, around Beef Episode 7, there’s a noticeable tonal shift from lighthearted pranks and intrusions to something more serious. (Episode 8 in particular is where Beef really embraces its darker tendencies.) In light of that shift, Episode 10 feels like an abrupt retreat from what had become a more serious and distressing voice to the lighter mood of earlier episodes. And whereas in those earlier episodes, the comedy served as a supplement to the drama, in the Season 1 finale it’s more of a frustrating impediment. Every time Danny and Amy seem like they’re getting close to realizing that they both want to fill the same hole, they get stopped in the name of laughs.
The season ends with Danny in a coma and Amy at his bedside recovering from her many injuries. In a tender act of, dare I say, friendship (!!), she lays with him, and we see Danny’s arm reach up to hug her before cutting to black. That lone moment is all I needed. You can keep the long, expositional, clichéd speeches about why characters are they way they were. We’ve seen that plenty of times elsewhere. Amy and Danny communicate their hate and dislike for one another primarily through action, so it makes perfect sense that their emotional arcs would resolve with physical action rather than words. I just wish the road Episode 10 took to that resolution hadn’t been so bumpy.
Beef is easily one of Netflix’s best shows in recent years, and a nice reminder of the phenomenal talent that Steven Yeun and Ali Wong possess, as well as a great introduction to Young Mazino, Joseph Lee, and Ashley Park (who eagle-eyed viewers will recall from Girls5Eva). Their performances are only helped by the incredible writing efforts of Lee Sung Jun and his team of writers, who manage to encapsulate and distill the emotional trappings of modernity to give us a compelling story about two broken people trying to fix themselves.