Beef finger

‘Beef’ is One of the Year’s Most Compelling Shows

All eyes may be on "Succession," but critic Siddhant Adlakha calls out this great new Netflix series starring Ali Wong and Steven Yeun

A trivial road rage encounter soon consumes all involved in A24’s Beef, a masterclass in interweaving narrative, performance, and theme. Arriving on Netflix April 6th, the 10-part comedy-drama hits hard and slowly spirals in a whirlwind of controlled chaos, as its lead characters—Steven Yeun’s hair-trigger hustler Danny Cho and Ali Wong’s listless suburbanite Amy Lau—become hell-bent on destroying one another, despite the limited, pin-hole windows they have into each other’s lives. However, the audience is gradually granted unfettered access to their worlds and their psychologies, each born from deeply personal experiences rooted in their pasts as first-gen Asian Americans. The resultant saga of deception, double-lives and triple-crosses winds its screws with wrenching precision, revealing some of the richest, most fully-formed TV characters in recent memory, and one of the most riveting shows you’re likely to see this year.  

All we know about Danny, when we first meet him at an L.A. supermarket, is that he’s having a bad day. The specifics are eventually brought to light, but in the meantime, the frame remains anchored on Yeun’s sweat-drenched brow and his intense, irritable expression, leading to an inevitable explosion of anger when his dusty red pickup truck is cut off by a fancy white SUV. Middle fingers are flipped and a chase ensues, though neither he nor the other driver—later revealed to be the equally troubled and aggressive Amy—catch any glimpse of one another except for their license plates. All they know about each other is an alphanumeric code, and a vague idea shaped by external factors, like the cars they drive. And yet, this brief skirmish burrows its way into their minds, growing and metastasizing like a tumor fed by the rage and indignation they experience elsewhere in their lives. It’s not unlike rubbing proverbial shoulders with someone online on a bad day, where a brief exchange might lead you to assume and extrapolate the other 99% of someone’s life and personality from the mere 1% you’ve seen.

Things don’t erupt immediately, though. Instead, the show’s first episode, “The Birds Don’t Sing, They Screech in Pain”—named for a Werner Herzog quote; each episode takes its title from an observation about nature or humanity—bides its time by luring us into the characters’ wider circumstances, so that their inevitable frustrations make sense. Danny, a handyman whose parents moved back to Korea after the failure of their motel, spends his days trying to make ends meet while caring for his slacker younger brother, Paul (Young Mazino). Their older cousin, the smooth talking small-time criminal Isaac (David Choe), offers assistance in the form of risky quid-pro-quo, of which Danny often avails if it means bringing his mom and dad back to America and building them a home. Amy, the child of a withholding Chinese father and Vietnamese mother, lives on the edge of professional burnout in the world of fine art, as she tries (and often fails) to balance work with her life at home. Her emotionally unavailable husband George Nakai (Joseph Lee) and his scowling mother Fumi (Patti Yasutake) come from a wealthy background of Japanese artistry, to which Amy constantly compares her own successes and failures. Her young daughter June (Remy Holt) is one of the few things giving her life joy and meaning. Though when she sees parts of herself in June, she isn’t entirely thrilled, given how much of her own personality she’s been ashamedly forced to keep behind lock and key.

The growing resentments in their personal lives—between Danny’s financial inertia and Amy’s familial numbness—eventually boil over, and they soon channel their festering rage at one another in the form of mean-spirited pranks, after Danny uses Amy’s license plate number to track her down. The practical jokes soon escalate, as the duo begins covertly infiltrating each other’s lives, learning much more about one another (and about themselves) than they’d originally bargained for. At first, their entanglement is almost liberating; it gives them something new and exciting to do. However, it isn’t long before peering into the lives of others forces them to reflect on who they are, and why they’ve chosen to go down this path rather than actually dealing with their anxieties. Beef may take place entirely in the real world, but it plays like a distinctly online story, holding a mirror to the ways people deflect their unfulfillment and channel their festering anger from a distance, at targets they only presume to know.

“You don’t know what someone is going through” is a common social media refrain, though it’s often applied in retrospect, only after someone’s woes or reasons for acting out are brought to light. Beef slowly peels back those layers in the moment, tracing the genesis of not only enmity, but action, as two strangers become hell-bent on destroying one another, and only see each other’s wider circumstances through a lens they’ve predetermined. However, in allowing viewers three-dimensional, 360-degree tours of their inner lives (from past to present), the show imbues even its most comedic hijinks with a dash of tragedy. One might even feel guilty for enjoying their respective downfalls in initial episodes, but the bouncy, mischievous score by artist The Haxan Cloak makes it difficult not to have fun.

However, by the third episode, “I Am Inhabited by a Cry,” any notions that Beef may be light or farcical are thrown firmly out the window, when even Danny and Amy’s rivalry fails to provide the kind of novel thrills that may have, however briefly, injected some intoxicating spark into the tedium of their lives. The lens which the series affords them soon begins to apply to every character in their vicinity, and by peeling back their layers as well, the show begins to offer new and challenging perspectives on our protagonists, and the ways they impact those around them. Both Yeun and Wong deliver career-best work, with Yeun rendering Danny a frayed man in search of community and on the verge of constant breakdown, and Wong channeling Amy’s sexual and emotional frustrations (from behind the character’s octagonal glasses and polite smile) with audacious intensity, as the series transforms into a pseudo-Breaking Bad with its end-episode cliffhangers, and informational reveals timed perfectly to moments of character drama in long, uncomfortable close ups.

Though perhaps another great point of comparison is the short-lived HBO series Enlightened, not only for its slow-burn unraveling of character psychology, but for its penchant for allowing even minor characters full interiority by telling stories from their perspectives. Every performer on Beef gets their due, since the series affords them the opportunity to turn even their seemingly rote “types” into fully formed human beings who are just as lonely and broken as Danny and Amy. Their multitude of backdrops and experiences also help weave a tapestry of nebulous Asian American identity as it exists in the modern American zeitgeist, with its own stereotypes and interchangeable traits which the series zeroes in on, turning each one into a lush and lived-in element of the characters’ ethos.  

The emotional frigidity often applied to Asian immigrant parents in western media, and the subsequent rejection of healthy communication—“Western therapy doesn’t work on Eastern minds,” Danny quips—aren’t just boxes to be ticked off. Rather, they’re foundational building blocks for the way these characters navigate the world. The ways their generational traumas manifest (and are passed down) are depicted in manners much more rich and vivid than mere thematic lip service. The series explores, with stunning intimacy, the effects of what Amy refers to as “generations of bad decisions sitting inside you” in its quieter moments in between all the mayhem. 

Even when Beef switches narrative gears in its last few episodes (in ways best left un-spoiled), it uses even its swerves into action and dreamlike absurdism to get its hands dirty. No matter how it presents its surface, at its core, it’s a moving show about the ways depression can turn hatred from a momentary ember into a fixed psychological state, and a story that digs deep into the fantasy of truly knowing other people, and the horrors of being truly known.

Editorial note: This review of Beef was written and published before the controversy surrounding actor David Choe resurfaced. On a podcast in 2014, Choe claimed to have sexually assaulted a woman, a story he later walked back and claimed was fiction intended for “shock value” along with an apology in 2017 for making light of sexual assault. Neither Netflix nor any of the creators involved with Beef have commented on the issue at this time.

Published on March 30, 2023

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter