Being petty is fun.
When you’re in conflict with someone, twisting the knife hits the brain’s pleasure center like little else. Is being petty particularly mature? No, of course not. But it feels good; sometimes, people just want to get their licks where and when they can. In the moment, a shady retort or middle finger can be the perfect coda to get you through your day.
What if you can’t let that middle finger go?
The Netflix dark comedy Beef asks the question on behalf of Danny Cho (Steven Yuen), a struggling contractor, and Amy Lau (Ali Wong), a plant store owner. Their lives intersect one day in a hardware store parking lot when Amy cuts Danny off from backing out of his spot. Already having a bad day, Danny slams the car horn, a blaring but harmless expression of frustration. In response, Amy opens her car window and flips Danny the bird. In most scenarios, Amy drives away, and Danny just drives home, relaying his story about the jackass to his brother Paul (Young Mazino). But Danny doesn’t let it go. Instead, he pursues Amy’s car through the L.A. suburbs to seek retribution for the slight. The car chase is unhinged, over-the-top, and hilarious.
It’s also just the beginning. Danny and Amy refuse to move past their road rage encounter, instead leaping headfirst into a riotously funny pit of obsessive revenge. Their dedication to the destruction is astounding. With one initial tiny bit of information, Danny and Amy quickly insert themselves into each other’s lives and seek to mess it all up. They take no prisoners, and nothing is off limits. Their turf war ensnares everything and everyone: their jobs, family members, friends, and even places of worship. It escalates quickly throughout ten 30-minute episodes, with Danny and Amy losing control of their elaborate schemes until they reach the point of no return. And then, somehow, they crash past that point to unimaginable depths of depravity. It is bonkers and glorious.
If Danny and Amy seem like terrible, broken people, it’s probably because they are. However, showrunner Lee Sung Jin creates a rich world that explains but doesn’t excuse their indulgence in their worst impulses. At first, Danny and Amy seem like opposites, but we are soon clued into their compelling similarities. They are both crushed beneath the weight of expectations and festering past resentments. Neither can effectively communicate, and the people in their lives aren’t necessarily interested in bridging the gap. (Paul is an aspiring crypto bro with little ambition, while Amy’s husband George (Joseph Lee) is toxic positivity personified.) They both struggle with mental health issues, from depression to suicidal ideation.
Given what’s happening in their bubbles, where life always seems a step ahead of them, you understand why Danny and Amy would cling to a trivial moment to exert control. Beef’s empathy for them, and their friends and family, makes their interactions tense with a sizzling, diabolical energy. Every professional and personal breakthrough threatens to fall apart whenever they cross paths. Their timing is frequently impeccable (and terrible). You feel a startling, fascinating dissonance. The humor is so tight and brutally absurd that not laughing feels offensive. The series just as easily makes you hurt for them. You pray that Danny and Amy will get out of their way. It feels inevitable that they won’t, but Jin’s genius lies in surprising us with the extent of the damage.
The incisive writing and direction give Steven Yuen and Ali Wong the space to turn in excellent, career-best performances. Wong has effortless comic instincts, getting high-impact laughs from a wary look or intonation. She balances those instincts beautifully with Amy’s dramatic moments. She renders them with a quiet but searing heartbreak you feel through those same eyes and voice. Yuen is equally remarkable in communicating Danny’s deluded desperation and bone-deep depression and how it informs his funniest and most devastating moments. Wong and Yuen work exceedingly well together, with powerful chemistry that can flip on a dime. The entire cast excels, with Young Mazino, Joseph Lee, and Ashley Park (as Amy’s frenemy Naomi) reliably stealing scenes.
Beef understands that “hurt people” hurt people. It also understands that the hurt can be excruciating and outrageously funny. The series manages the balance masterfully, delivering a hilarious and profound look at an impulse we can fall prey to. Pettiness can be a sweet indulgence, but it’s best consumed thoughtfully and in moderation.
Beef, though? You should devour it.
Beef is currently streaming on Netflix.