A cynic might argue that there's an all-too-recognizable formula for popular television shows these days. Spicy premises starring damaged characters with very few likable traits, copious amounts of sex and cheating and violence, and F-bombs galore all feel like time-honored shock tactics to coax jaded, spectacle-starved audiences into uniting around a particular water-cooler show. For every "Succession" or "Yellowjackets," it always seems as if immensely popular shows like "Euphoria" remind us that edginess sells above all else.
"Beef," the latest television project from A24 and Netflix (two studios that certainly know their way around sensationalist productions), won't immediately dispel those surface-level criticisms. The inciting action unfolds after the pettiest of road rage incidents. Co-leads Steven Yeun and Ali Wong curse up a storm in clip-ready segments that seem destined to go viral on social media. The more one watches these characters go about their daily lives, the less there are to root for. But underneath all the melodramatic trappings, "Beef" contains a beating heart, a viciously sarcastic mean streak, and a sense of daring that immediately sets this apart from the chaff.
From creator, showrunner, and executive producer Lee Sung Jin ("Dave," "Silicon Valley"), the show's elevator pitch is actually incredibly simple: Two individuals from very different walks of life, linked only by the feeling of being constantly beaten down and profoundly unhappy from dealing with all that life throws at them, reach their respective breaking points during an unfortunate parking lot encounter that spirals in unforeseen ways from there.
It might not seem like such a mundane, everyday inciting action would be enough to sustain an entire 10-episode series (all of which Netflix made available to review, though don't worry — we're steering well clear of spoilers here). However, "Beef" almost seems to relish the idea of digging deep into this thought experiment and taking it to its most logical extreme. Nimbly switching gears from a dramedy to a comedic farce to an almost surrealist fable at points, "Beef" is as much an actor's showcase for Yeun and Wong's talents as it is a demonstration of some of the sharpest, driest, and most satisfying writing we've seen since the conclusion of FX's "Atlanta."
"Beef" is nothing short of an unpredictable, hilarious, and much-needed breath of fresh air for those willing to be taken along for the ride.
Ali Wong And Steven Yeun Are Great
How would a fraught, highly-charged moment of road rage continue to linger and fester in two of the most obsessive and self-destructive characters you'll ever meet?
Viewers are confronted with this question right from the opening moments of "Beef," putting us squarely in the perspective of Yeun's Danny Cho and immediately setting the tone for the steadily boiling cauldron of frustrations to come. Weighed down by his perception that there's always something just waiting in the wings to ruin every one of his plans, Danny is drowning in dire financial straits (largely of his own making) and at the end of his rope. By pure chance, the struggling handyman finds the perfect target for his frustrations when he accidentally backs into the path of an oncoming SUV outside a department store … and is promptly met by the other irate driver's obnoxious, prolonged honking and a middle finger out the window, for good measure.
If Yeun has never seemed quite as desperate, combustible, and impotently angry as he is here, then Wong is practically a revelation for fans who may only know her from various stand-up comedy specials or the Netflix rom-com "Always Be My Maybe." After the startlingly tense (yet dryly funny) car chase that follows, the deceptively diminutive Wong takes over the proceedings through sheer strength of charisma. In no time at all, she almost effortlessly convinces us that Amy Lau, a well-off businesswoman looking to close a wildly lucrative deal to sell off her business, could be capable of imploding just as violently as Danny.
Despite her picturesque life, the fractures are made readily apparent. On top of all the micro-aggressions that women of color (especially of Asian descent) are all too familiar with, she must deal with her well-meaning but inattentive husband George (Joseph Lee), headstrong young daughter June (Remy Holt), her overbearing mother-in-law Fumi (Patti Yasutake, who sinks her teeth into what could've been a stereotype of a role), and a precarious business deal with the unbearable and fabulously wealthy Jordan Forster (Maria Bello) that could fall apart at the slightest misstep.
And every step of the way, "Beef" turns the screws on Danny and Amy, juxtaposing their parallel journeys with one another and pushing them further to the brink.
A Dark But Insightful Exploration Into Our Worst Instincts
As much entertainment as "Beef" wrings out of its premise, none of it would really mean much without the series having anything really worthwhile to say about it all. Luckily, Lee Sung Jin wrangled together a killer writer's room (various episodes are credited to Sung Jin, Alice Ju, Alex Russell, Marie Hanhnhon Nguyen, Niko Gutierrez-Kovner, Joanna Calo, Kevin Rosen, and Jean Kyoung Frazier) and a directing team (made up of Japanese filmmaker Hikari, Jake Schreier, and Sung Jin) to help spice up this production with as much incisiveness, sardonic wit, and visual verve as humanly possible.
As we descend deeper and deeper into Amy and Danny's escalating war with each other, the scripts weave together various sprawling subplots and potential narrative cul-de-sacs — like a detour to Las Vegas with Danny's aimless younger brother Paul (an impressive Young Mazino) and ex-convict cousin Isaac (David Choe), various infidelities, and one particular storyline set in a Korean Protestant church that eviscerates the subculture with devastatingly amusing precision — to tell a much larger story about why we oftentimes make the worst possible decisions for ourselves and undermine our own self-interests. As much as the opening road rage sequence tees up everything that follows in "Beef," the series is far more interested in delving into the collective psyche of its surprisingly well-rounded ensemble of supporting characters. This is evidenced most dramatically by the episode titles — all taken from quotes by various novelists, philosophers, and even a famous viral moment featuring Werner Herzog — and the impressionist artwork that accompanies their reveals at the onset of every episode.
Not every aspect of the show manages to steer clear of troublesome potholes, mind you. At certain moments, the tricky tonal balance proves too much to prevent the stuffy melodrama from overwhelming the black comedy elements. But the show's commitment to simply going there, especially in the latter half when things take a downright "Atlanta"-like turn for the surreal and abstract, can't help but smooth over any rough spots. Even at its most uncertain, "Beef" displays a level of confidence and command of storytelling that will carry open-minded viewers right through to its shockingly moving conclusion. In a television landscape riddled with dead-end streets and shoddy infrastructure, this is one road trip you won't want to miss.
"Beef" premieres globally on Netflix April 6, 2023.
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The post Beef Review: Steven Yeun and Ali Wong Shine In The Funniest And Boldest Dark Comedy Since Atlanta appeared first on /Film.