Beef review – Ali Wong’s dark, existential thriller is deliciously subversive

Entertaining chaos and extremely funny dialogue result from this Netflix show about two rage-fuelled drivers having a life-affirming feud. It’s a rare delicacy

The beef in question is not a fancy wagyu steak. Although that’s the sort of thing that successful Calabasas lifestyle entrepreneur Amy (Ali Wong) might order on a desultory date-night with her model-handsome husband (Joseph Lee). Nor is it the thin-sliced, Korean barbecue that struggling building contractor Danny (Steven Yeun) grills outside his down-at-heel LA apartment block. This beef is the kind that exists between Amy and Danny, after a road-rage altercation in a car park escalates into a prolonged, strangely life-affirming feud – and Amy’s white whale of an SUV becomes an object of Moby Dick-like obsession.

Under ordinary circumstances the likes of Danny and Amy would have no reason to interact. Yes, they’re both east Asian thirtysomethings living in Los Angeles, but Amy’s world is one of swanky gallery launches, a self-designed show-home and pushing through multimillion-dollar deals. Danny’s world is Burger King chicken sandwiches, small-time scams and Korean church band. Someone like Amy probably wouldn’t even hire someone like Danny to clear her drains. Not with those Yelp reviews.

Beef, like its protagonists, struggles to make an instant emotional connection, but with good reason. The difficult-to-categorise script is not quite comedy and not quite drama, but neither is it yet another of the low-energy LA dramedies that streaming services have turned from quirky cottage industry to mass export good. It’s a dark, existential thriller about cynical people confronting a deep sadness within. And this – despite several very funny lines of dialogue – doesn’t easily translate to light entertainment. Yet this Beef, when marinated in creator Lee Sung Jin’s unique perspective and tenderised by unexpected plot twists, soon becomes a delicacy worth savouring.

If you are already familiar with the work of Wong and Yeun, Beef’s quality won’t surprise you. He is the Walking Dead alum turned star of well-regarded movies in the US (Nope, Minari) and South Korea (Burning). She is the standup whose raunchy, feminist takes on family life – particularly that latest, pre-divorce Netflix special – make her ideal casting as Amy, a woman whose secret stress-relief involves masturbating with a gun. They have previously worked together in the bird-based animation Tuca & Bertie (Wong voiced song thrush Bertie; Yeun was Bertie’s robin boyfriend Speckle; Lee had writing credits), yet never in a project that required such obvious personal investment.

Beef also proudly bears the imprint of achingly hip indie entertainment company A24 and attains at least one moment of psychedelic-enhanced, soul-swapping enlightenment, reminiscent of A24’s recent Oscar-winner Everything Everywhere All at Once. Beef’s particular brand of existential longing, though, is less hotdog fingers and more Herzogian angst. The episode titles include The Rapture of Being Alive and The Birds Don’t Sing, They Screech in Pain, with each title card featuring original paintings by artist and erstwhile Vice TV contributor David Choe (who also co-stars as Danny’s criminally inclined cousin Isaac). No doubt, the Beef-themed additions to A24’s much-coveted merch line will be dropping any day now.

Like much of A24’s output, Beef makes strides in onscreen representation, with another show about people we don’t get to see enough of on television. By which I don’t mean Asian American people – although that, too – I mean extremely angry people.

The expectation in these highly therapised times is that we do the work, find the balance and process any outsized emotion in a healthy, moderate way. That must be doubly so if you’re from a culture stereotyped as Zen and resident in the wellness heartlands of southern California. “I’m so sick of smiling, dude,” complains Danny at one point. But he also knows any momentary mask-slip will be captured by someone’s Ring video doorbell, posted on Nextdoor and shared on social media, ad infinitum.

For all their differences, Amy and Danny are united by an irresistible compulsion to rebel against this self-imposed, 24-hour surveillance. And if you think their propensity for petty grievance and questionable decision-making is well established in early episodes, just wait until you see what they do later. Amid this entertaining chaos, there’s also the thrillingly subversive suggestion that pelting it full-throttle down the rage super highway might be the most direct route to feeling alive again – whatever your therapist has to say.

• Beef is available on Netflix


Ellen E Jones

The GuardianTramp

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