In a world that has been sold as one where dreams are easily attainable once one works at them, and then feeling frustrated when that illusion shatters and with our covetous hands grasping at thin air, that frustration starts mounting. Now couple that with the generational trauma of immigrant parents raising their kids with a value system that is opposite to the Western culture, a difference that contributes to distaste and strife as generations even 5 or 7 years apart have very different perspectives of success, and frustration becomes even more profound. The big marker of frustration during these moments is anger, which is what occurs when Danny Cho and Amy Lau almost get into a collision in their respective vehicles while driving out of their parking spots, and Amy flips the bird at a frustrated and angry Danny Cho. With that pebble thrown in the seemingly peaceful stream, the ripple effect begins as Danny Cho drives his truck in pursuit of the SUV and manages to draw “first blood”, as retaliation for the innocuous flip. In response, Amy, herself an entrepreneur, finds herself venting her frustration about her seemingly perfect life in counter-retaliation against Danny’s attacks. And so begins the one-upmanship.
Creator Lee Sung Jin is very interested in the effects of misplaced anger and the human condition of rationalising one’s failures and twisting them to suit their agenda. As a result, our two protagonists, Danny and Amy, are both incessantly flawed people, prone to anger and misguided decisions. This is a story about domino effects, about seemingly innocuous events managing to be affected by a seemingly random occurrence of “road rage, which, in hindsight, could be traced back to that as the source. What sets “Beef” apart is that all these seemingly innocuous events do not feel shoehorned into the narrative but rather as logical decisions taken by these characters, which lends this world and these characters their authenticity, even as their microaggressions slowly start to affect their wider world and become all-encompassing.
It is also fascinating how “Beef” tackles past events and generational trauma as a whole as a “seed” for these events to occur, a seedling for the plant known as anger to rise and take shape. It is also hilarious how random anecdotes like crows randomly attacking Dick Cheney during the 2003 US election become a pivotal plot point in a very unexpected and genre-shifting fashion. It is almost seamless in how Beef balances its dark humour with almost anxiety-inducing suspenseful drama, and thus even a decision Amy takes to spite Danny evolves into an emotional cornerstone in the relationship between Amy and a secondary character, which again intricately ties back to Danny. The focus is split between these two protagonists and their families, but that depth of character and its exploration never wavers.
It would also be remiss not to mention the score and the soundtrack for Beef, which has its share of modern catchy soundtracks, but they mesh perfectly with the pace, verve, and vibe of the show. But of course, the show rests entirely on the performances from Joseph Lee as Amy’s husband George, David Choe as psychopath Isaac, Young Mazino as Danny’s brother Paul, and the rest of the large supporting cast, who all have their moments to shine, even the guest stars, which consist of comedians like Andrew Santino. But it is the performances of Steven Yeun and Ali Wong that should drive conversations, with the two of them giving the performances of their careers as two lost and damaged souls in the world trying to find a connection but ultimately resorting to anger, aggression, and manipulation. This results in a twisted way for them to maintain a strange connection with each other, an unfamiliar umbilical cord that they are cognizant of snipping off but are loath to cut as well, because, after a point, this anger gives them meaning, a way out of their depressive cycle of life, at the cost of everyone else.
The one criticism that could be afforded the show is its propensity to stretch the story out by maybe an episode and a half. For the most part, the pacing of each of these episodes has been perfect, with the dialogue and the plot threads being cleverly hilarious and compelling, respectively, but by the final stretch, you could feel the length just a tad bit. At this point, the sheer surprise of such a show dropping is only matched by its efficiency in telling such a complicated, layered story based on such a simple premise. This might be one of Netflix’s best yet.