TV: Beef

Road-rage thriller, dark comedy, empathetic drama, a tale of rival antiheroes—Netflix’s Beef ticks multiple boxes. While it doesn’t always seem to know what it wants to be, it still manages to  commit whole-heartedly, resulting in a restless hyphenate with a refreshing focus on Asian-American characters. The rivalry begins in a parking lot, when Danny Cho (Steven Yeun), a down-on-his-luck handy man, nearly backs his truck into Amy Lau (Ali Wong), a well-to-do small business owner. Words are exchanged, a bird is flipped, and the two drivers briefly engage in a dangerous vehicular duel on the streets of Southern California. The encounter appears to blow over, but when their paths cross again, neither combatant can let it go. What follows is a dramatic escalation that threatens to derail both of their lives, and those of everyone around them.

Initially, Beef suffers from a character likability problem, throwing us so headlong into the conflict that it’s difficult to get a handle on the combatants or why we should care about them. But this seems strategic, as the show then digs deeper, expanding from its inciting incident to provide the emotional context. As it turns out, the characters’ excessive over-reaction stems from significant emotional problems, and as the background comes into focus, Beef becomes an interesting meditation on interpersonal cause and effect. Amy and Danny were shaped by their circumstances, which fed into their beef, which leads to subsequent ripple effects through their respective social circles. This narrative plan takes time to coalesce, but as the dispute spreads beyond them, it pays off, the script delivering powerful empathy for its problematic antagonists. It explains their actions, even as it doesn’t let them off the hook for the damage they’re doing.

Overall, Wong fares better with rendering her character relatable; Amy’s buttoned-down depression is just under the surface, and for all her flaws, she’s doing her best to provide for her preternaturally good-natured husband George (Joseph Lee), all under the judgmental eye of her mother-in-law Fumi (Patti Yusutake). Meanwhile, Yeun’s shallow, selfish Danny is harder to like. For all his hard luck, Danny’s appeal is undermined by incompetence and the fact that his supposed devotion to brother Paul (Young Mazino) is a form of gaslighting toxicity. Still, it’s impressive how thoroughly both actors inhabit their roles, and while the head-on collision of their journey has bumpy moments, it delivers them to a satisfying place in the final episode, when the script finally has mercy on them, ending the squabble on an perfect note. Overall, an erratic affair, but unpredictable, thought-provoking, and superbly acted.

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