‘Beef’ Evaluate: Ali Wong, Steven Yeun Ignite an Overcooked Netflix Present

‘Beef’ Evaluate: Ali Wong, Steven Yeun Ignite an Overcooked Netflix Present

Like “Falling Down” split between two leads, Lee Sung Jin’s tense series tracks feuding strangers connected by more than just their road rage.

A blaring horn. A recalcitrant shout. A raised middle finger. Drivers around the world are all too familiar with this simple sequence of events, yet they consistently evoke heated debate, lasting hostilities, and not an insignificant amount of anxiety. In retrospect, road rage often feels inexplicable. Why was I so angry? What made me say that, or do that, or take things that far? At best, such questions can lead to introspection: What really drove me to react like that while driving? At worst, the questions are drowned out by resentment, and we just continue racing down fury road.

In “Beef,” a new Netflix series from creator Lee Sung Jin and the cool kids’ studio, A24, the consequences of the honk, exclamation, and flipped bird combo extend far and wide, as Amy (Ali Wong) and Danny (Steven Yeun) engage in an escalating interpersonal feud that should’ve ended in the hardware store’s parking lot. They know that. We know that. But everyone also recognizes the irrational near-inevitability of road rage. Once you feel slighted, it’s hard to back down.

As the titular fight stretches from those initial moments across days, weeks, and months, “Beef” does a fine job balancing Amy and Danny’s practical intelligence and impractical passions; their bitterness toward the other driver ebbs and flows as their personal lives better or worsen, and it’s in these moments that the half-hour drama thrives. The series isn’t interested in picking sides. It’s designed to evoke empathy for each combatant, while exploring their shared humanity and collective hardships. Along the way, their grudges prompt shocking choices — some justified by character and circumstance, others that feel forced in to raise the stakes — but even when “Beef” goes too far, it’s held together by Wong, Yeun, and the understanding that this kind of rage doesn’t always make sense.

Ali Wong in “Beef”

Andrew Cooper / Netflix

Only after Amy and Danny’s initial altercation (which you can watch for free via YouTube) do we get to know who each driver is outside their respective vehicles. Amy is a self-made business owner, whose plant and homegoods store is on the verge of a major sale. For quite some time, she’s been courting a wealthy buyer (played with a blissful entitlement by Maria Bella), and more than the massive check being teased, what Amy really wants is time off. She wants time for her daughter, sans constant interruptions from work. She wants time to be the kind of parent her husband George (Joseph Lee) already is, as June’s loving, patient, and attentive daily caretaker. She also wants time away from her mother-in-law’s constant judgements, which always disregard Amy’s contributions as a provider.

Amy feels mounting pressure to prove herself as an entrepreneur and a mother, and Danny — despite having no kids or partner of his own — is in a similar, dingier boat. The demands of his one-man contracting business are strenuous in a multitude of ways that can make work feel like a constant (managing Yelp reviews, hiring part-time help, finding clients, etc.), but he also puts a lot of that pressure on himself. Danny claims it’s his family that’s forcing him to work so hard and, at first, there’s some truth to that position. With a brother like Paul (Young Mazino) — who’s more interested in crypto schemes and hooking up than helping with the business — and parents who are always complaining, his immediate relations do play their part in his unhappiness.

But Danny is fighting an unwinnable war. No matter how much he wants his brother to care about the same things Danny cares about, they’re different people, just as wanting to build your parents a house is an admirable but implausible goal for a working-class 30-something living in the Los Angeles area. Lee, along with his writing staff, cleverly infuse Danny and Amy’s class disparity into their burgeoning battle — without making it the central conflict. “Beef” adds layer after surprising layer to their dispute, poking their pride while raising the stakes. Lee seems most interested in exploring what demons Amy and Danny are exorcising from behind the wheel, and his scripts excel at drawing parallels between his two leads — commonalities you’re desperate for them to recognize in each other, past the dominant haze of white-hot anger.

Wong and Yeun shine throughout, especially when called upon to express their characters’ boiling frustrations while pretending to be fine. Danny, quite purposefully, isn’t far removed from your typical fed-up everyman, but Yeun is so sharp in conveying which little slights hit Danny where it hurts. His outrage is pitch-perfect, sliding effortlessly between comic exasperation and maligned machismo — always able to find the series’ shifting tone. (“Beef” often feels like a black comedy, but it’s ultimately defined by long stretches of pure drama.) Early on, there’s a scene where Danny breaks down, and director Jake Schreier‘s camera hones in tight on Yeun’s face. Danny shows so much resistance to letting go, but he’s been holding back his emotions for so long, there’s simply no keeping them at bay anymore.

Steven Yeun in “Beef”

Courtesy of Netflix

It’s a beautiful moment, soon echoed by Wong. As her brand’s primary representative — from taking selfies with customers to cracking jokes during industry panels — Amy often has to grin and bear it. Her fight with Danny offers her an opportunity to unleash in ways she otherwise can’t, and Wong tears into her most fearsome scenes with giddy satisfaction. And yet, she also leaves a more prominent mark whenever Amy dials it down and opens up. A quiet arc involving Amy’s own mother is just as memorable as any of Wong’s outlandish attacks.

With so many moving minor moments, it’s only when “Beef” shifts into overdrive that its story loses traction. Lee’s scripts careen out of control over the final hour or so, setting the stakes too high for a resolution that demands a certain level of intimacy. Some audiences might enjoy getting caught up in the ride, but the series loses its grounded realism in too many unbelievable moments, and too much of the conclusion feels implied, where it could’ve been exact.

“Beef” remains eminently watchable (so long as your nerves can tolerate such needlessly risky behavior) and its riveting performances make the five-plus hours a worthy investment. The limited series may jump the shark in its back half, but in doing so, it also mimics the contradictory emotions tied to its core conflict: Road rage can turn all of us into extreme versions of ourselves, and “Beef” plays out the shocking indignation felt so acutely from the first carhorn to that final outstretched finger.

Grade: B

“Beef” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Festival. Netflix will release the limited series Thursday, April 6.

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