As television continues to bring in movie stars to headline their projects, stars get the chance to play out of type. This allows performers to flex their acting muscles and often tell stories that audiences may not associate with them. Netflix hopes that Beef, the new series from Lee Sung Jin, draws you in with its star power. Ali Wong and Steven Yeun have made their bones on comedic performances and likable characters. Yet, Beef asks you to dig into the depths of what it means to have compassion for someone you do not understand. Despite two brilliant performances at its center, Beef struggles to keep us rooting for anyone on screen.
After encountering a customer service issue at a tool store, Danny (Yeun) begins backing out of his parking spot. He nearly hits Amy (Wong), who gives him the finger as she drives away. This pushes Danny into road rage, causing him to chase her down the street. They run from the cops and lose each other in the chaos. However, the two drivers find their lives intertwined, repeatedly clashing over the next year. They attack each other ad nausium, slowly destroying each other’s happiness. The battle leaves collateral damage on both sides and one wonders if either can live while the other survives.
Lee Sung Jin builds the story around the two stars, ensuring one always dominates the screen. This sometimes works against Beef, as Yeun and Wong need to grow independently, but that means we do not get them on screen at the same time. Their scenes together are electric, and watching them take revenge on each other becomes wildly entertaining over the season. Both deliver excellent performances, with Wong showcasing more dramatic range than we’ve seen in the past. Her performance is undeniable, especially in the middle episodes, where she begins asserting agency.
Yeun brings his charm and hopeful nature to a role about a dislikable man. Beef plays off our relationship with Yeun, and as a result, we want him to do the best he can. However, Yeun’s character manipulates everyone, from his brother and cousin to his ex-girlfriend. This makes his relationship with Amy perhaps his most genuine. Only Amy sees the pure rage that explodes out of him, and he turns up the scary nature of his role at every chance.
Self-discovery does not come easy for either character. Weighed down by expectations, each fights internal and external battles to earn money. Amy supports a family despite the perception that she married into wealth. Yet, as someone who created a pseudo-lifestyle brand, she must continue to showcase the “perfect” life. That pressure brings her to a boiling point.
Meanwhile, Danny deals with the expectations of an immigrant son. It’s not enough for him to succeed in America. He must succeed in bringing his parents to America and then support them when they arrive. This pressure has hurt the children of immigrants who want to pursue a long-term plan but are caught by the necessity to perform now for the benefit of others.
Beef‘s cast gets opportunities to shine but often takes a backseat to the leads. Ashley Park continues her impressive ascent, and it will be curious if she takes on a larger role in the series’ future. She brings subdued anger to the role, and her push to get involved in the dealings of high-class society pushes her down an unusual path. Meanwhile, David Choe and Young Mazino provide alternative perspectives on life as a child of immigrants. The series gets to thrive by displaying these alternative visions of life in America, and at the same time, their flaws are universally relatable.
Directors Hikari, Jake Schreier, and Lee Sung Jin establish quite the visual profile for the series. There’s a gritty realism that helps ingratiate us to the artistic world. At the same time, it brings a visual flourish that allows us to understand these two are willing to get down in the dirt. It bears some resemblance to late 90s and early 2000s Soderbergh but still sets itself apart as its own palette.
While Beef certainly checks off the boxes of the dark comedy, it also looks hard at its deeply unlikable characters. Yet populating the world with self-serving, upsetting people helps the comedy hit home. There would be no conflict if they were not selfish in the first place. The twists and turns of the season may not keep you on board, but the performances from Yeun and Wong are so good you might find yourself hooked.