If you take Beef’s trailer at face value it’s a darkly humorous road-rage revenge tale. But wait, there’s more. Brace yourself for an emotional and philosophical whirlwind as Beef tackles generational trauma, the immigrant experience, and the mysteries of the human psyche.
Ali Wong plays entrepreneur Amy Lau, who stands at the edge of financial success. She has spent two years negotiating the sale of her designer plant business, Kōyōhaus, to Forsters, a big-box chain controlled by the capricious billionaire Jordan Forster (Maria Bello). In the interim, Amy provides for her family: George (Joseph Lee), her New Age artist husband, and Junie (Remy Holt), their anxiety-prone daughter. She foots the bill for everything, from their luxurious Calabasas home to the organic gardening playgroups George insists Junie attend. Meanwhile, thirty miles east in Los Angeles, Danny Cho (Yeun) struggles to keep his floundering contracting company afloat, supporting his idle brother, Paul (Young Mazino), and assisting his elderly parents (Jerry Hanjoo Kim and Gina Lee) who have fallen on hard times.
Amy and Danny find themselves grappling with countless external pressures and no way to vent them. They reach their boiling points simultaneously in a Forsters parking lot. Upset and distracted after the store refused a return without a receipt, Danny almost reverses his truck into Amy’s pristine white Mercedes SUV. A frenzied, rubbish-strewn chase erupts through the well-groomed suburban streets, but Amy flees before either of them can satiate their desire for revenge. Frustrated and now fixated on a new target for his impotent anger, Danny unleashes a chaotic yet effective retribution on his vehicular nemesis, setting them both on a progressively darker path of retaliation.
The early stages of Beef’s narrative are driven by the tantalizing “if only” of Amy and Danny’s relationship. If they could just stop and talk, they would realize how much they share in common. Although the businesswoman and the handyman come from different financial backgrounds, both are racing to achieve a sense of security that remains infuriatingly elusive. Forsters, the site of their disastrous first encounter and a symbol of the predominantly white establishment that controls the so-called American dream, remains a constant presence as their feud persists. “There’s always something” is a recurring complaint for both Amy and Danny, who yearn for just a bit of tranquility. For Jordan Forster, however, this phrase is more of a mantra: “You just gotta keep grabbing what you can, right? That’s what makes life so wonderful. There’s always something.”
Series creator Lee Sung Jin weaves numerous fascinating contrasts throughout Beef’s twisting 10-episode journey. George’s unwavering positivity only serves to intensify Amy’s feelings of helplessness and deepen her toxic anger. Initially, Amy and Danny’s status as strangers makes them ideal vessels for each other’s boiling fury. However, as they become further entangled in the vendetta and infiltrate the lives of George and Paul, they discover that strangers can also be perfect conduits for their most intimate confessions.
Both Yeun and Wong deliver outstanding performances. Their roles require a blend of physical and intellectual comedy, explosive anger and suppressed, gut-wrenching frustration, utter despair and numbing emptiness. The actors masterfully integrate these elements while preserving the poignant humanity of their increasingly unlikable characters. The destructive ripple effect of Amy and Danny’s ongoing clash eventually forces them into brief introspective moments. Some revelations evoke sympathy for the battling protagonists, while others highlight the harm they’ve inflicted on those around them. Paul wasn’t always a laconic freeloader seeking easy cash, and Mazino unveils the touching loneliness within Danny’s sweet, thwarted younger brother. Ashley Park (Emily in Paris) also receives a notable spotlight as Naomi, Amy’s friend (and Jordan’s sister-in-law), who turns out to be more than just a dissatisfied housewife.
Despite the remarkable ensemble cast, which includes David Choe as Danny’s well-connected cousin Isaac and Patti Yasutake as George’s adoring mother Fumi, Beef struggles with pacing. Middle episode slogfest; the middle episodes tend to lag and occasionally resemble a series of well-acted yet disjointed scenes. There are delightful moments, like Danny and Paul teasing each other while playing Nerf basketball in their apartment, but the show often feels stuck in a repetitive loop, rather than advancing the narrative. “It is selfish for broken people to spread their brokenness,” Amy confesses in episode 4, yet she and Danny continue doing so for most of the remaining six episodes.
As Beef progresses, it takes on a darker tone, with Danny and Amy repeatedly choosing violence, both literal and emotional, regardless of the harm it causes to those around them. Neither they nor the viewers can discern what truly motivates their actions; every time either Danny or Amy nears a moment of genuine self-examination, they swiftly deflect and redirect those negative emotions towards the other. Each episode is titled after fragments of quotes from renowned thinkers—Franz Kafka, Simone de Beauvoir, Joseph Campbell—all reflecting on the conundrum of human perception and motivation. Happiness proves elusive for Danny and Amy, even in victory. “Everything fades. Nothing lasts,” she tells him during a rare moment of peace. “We’re just a snake eating its own tail.”
Just as Beef appears set to embrace complete misanthropy in its chaotic, surreal final episodes, the show veers away from utter despair in the end. This choice leaves the viewer somewhat puzzled, but perhaps a hint to Lee Sung Jin’s thought process lies in the finale’s title, taken from a quote by Carl Jung: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.” Indeed, Beef fearlessly delves into some profoundly disagreeable depths to tell the story of two broken individuals striving to find their way back to the light.