For the average middle-income millennial, life is a day to day hustle. Your parents tell you what a disappointment you are everyday, so you work hard to live up to their expectations. You study diligently and get into University, all so you can work a day job that requires you to pretty much drown yourself in work, and still be worried about making ends meet. Things have only exacerbated since the pandemic, with a general mood of rage and resentment polluting the air, so much so that we’re all one tipping point away from going ballistic on an innocent passerby.
This is the premise of Beef, with two strangers taking out their angst and anger about their situations on each other because they don’t have any other outlet. Amy’s (Ali Wong) been in negotiation with Forsters CEO Jordan (Maria Bello) for 2 years, in the hopes that the company acquires her plant business. She wants to cash out and take a break, which would give her more time with her husband George (Joseph Lee) and daughter Junie (Remy Holt). Danny’s (Steven Yeun) situation is more dire: he wants to buy his parents some land so they can come back to America and retire, but is struggling to make ends meet as a contractor.
Yeun has made quite a name for himself over the past few years, churning out memorable performances in Burning, Minari and Nope. He’s incredible here as Danny, able to channel both Danny’s anger and despair, fleshing him out as a decent guy who keeps digging himself into a bigger hole because he keeps betting on things to turn around – only they never do. I’ve only seen Wong in comedic roles, so I’m blown away by her acting range and performance in Beef. She has a perpetual fake smile plastered over her face, constantly projecting this calm persona she doesn’t truly feel, all while seething on the inside. The pair also have fantastic chemistry with each other. It has an almost dangerous edge to it, a primal volatility, especially since we’re unsure where this course of rage will take them.
Neither of them have a proper support system to help them deal with the stress they’re facing. When George asks Amy about her day, he doesn’t truly want to listen, cutting her off before she gets to the negative parts. Danny wants to be close to his younger brother Paul (Young Mazino), but coming from two different generations means that neither of them understands the perspective of the other. Paul just wants to live in the moment, and only do things that he wants to do, while Danny’s always looking to the future and barely lives for himself. There’s a recurring scene in the series which involves Danny chowing down burgers from Burger King, but he does so quickly and without any sense of relish. In fact, we don’t see Danny enjoying himself in any scene with food. Even at a buffet he isn’t eating to satiate but to get bang for his buck. There’s nothing pleasurable in his life.
It’s the same for Amy. Her relationship with George is empty and doesn’t provide her with anything, and her attempts to connect with Junie never really get anywhere. This leads to dangerous outcomes, like pursuing her beef with Danny till the ends of the earth, all so she can alleviate the dissatisfaction in her life. Each of them start out small, like defacement of private property, before things escalate and they get closer to the people in each other’s lives in order to inflict maximum damage. Creator Lee Sung Jin isn’t afraid to give us flawed, even villainous protagonists, but what’s most alarming is how relatable they are. I’ve never instigated a stranger into an episode of road rage, but that anger so palpable in each of them is something I recognise in myself. It’s frightening to feel such resonance in a TV show, but that is the power of Beef.
The soundscape is very anxiety inducing, especially the first 15 minutes of the series, where we feel the anger boil over and spill out into a crazy display of road rage. The 2000s needle drops, like songs from Hoobastank and Incubus, inundates the show with a certain nostalgia, a yearning for a simpler time when life didn’t suck so much. The constant close-ups of both Yeun and Wong throughout the series allow us to experience every single nuance of emotion that crosses their faces, and as mentioned, both actors do a such a stellar job with the material, be it the dramatic or more comedic sides of the writing. David Choe, who plays Danny’s cousin Isaac, is hilarious. Whether he’s yapping about massage chairs or having outbursts in ramen restaurants, you’ll find yourself laughing even when it doesn’t feel entirely appropriate.
I’ll be surprised if I can find a TV show that tops Beef for me this year. You are encouraged to heartily indulge in this fantastic meal of excellent television, but maybe meditate a little before you do.
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A24 has done it again. Beef is delicious, incendiary stuff, with delectable performances from leads Steven Yeun and Ali Wong, and material that has such resonance that it might be a tad difficult to swallow.
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