Beef Is a Portrait of Our All-American Rage

Beef tells the story of a chance road-rage encounter that blossoms into a modern feud. Director Lee Sung Jin says it’s about “how hard it is to be alive,” but the show’s cross-class fantasy logic points at the powder keg of growing alienation in our society.

In Beef, growing alienation erupts in a chance encounter between strangers. (Netflix)

Beef, A24’s new ten-episode Netflix dramedy, has plenty going for it. The premise is compelling, featuring two charismatic leads, Steven Yeun (Minari, The Walking Dead) as financially strapped contractor Danny Cho and Ali Wong (Always Be My Maybe) as rich, type A entrepreneur Amy Lau, locked in an escalating feud after getting embroiled in a Los Angeles road-rage incident.

It seems right that this incident doesn’t even amount to a fender bender — there’s no collision, however slight, between Danny’s overloaded old red pickup truck and Amy’s gleaming white SUV. Distracted by his own misery, Danny tries to back out of a parking space and is honked at with blaring aggression by Amy, as yet unseen behind tinted windows. She flips him off, he tries to chase her down in typically hair-raising LA traffic, and that’s the start of the whole insane rigamarole. It’s a good way to illustrate the way people live now, in such a boiling cauldron of pressure and disparagement that we’re all ready to pop off at the slightest diss.

Initially, class seems like the focus of the antagonism. Certainly, I was Team Danny all the way, because after all, who has plenty of money to soften every rough edge of this god-awful world made of nothing but rough edges? Not Danny.

He’s actually only an aspiring contractor, more like a broke handyman with big, anxious dreams, struggling to make his bills and get any kind of professional traction doing repairs for affluent LA types who openly despise him. (Overheard from the wife of one client: “Just fire him, honey! He’s so annoying!”) He lives in a crappy apartment with his slacker younger brother, Paul (Young Mazino), and has promised to scrape up enough money somehow to bring his aging parents over from South Korea. His life is a nightmare of financial worries and desperate attempts to put up a front of happiness and success, which fools nobody.

Show creator-writer-director-producer Lee Sung Jin (Tucca and Bertie, Dave, Silicon Valley) has stated in interviews that he originally planned to have Korean immigrant Dan run up against a wealthy white American guy, but decided against emphasizing racial hostility. Both lead characters are Asian American, though the series delves into the specifics of their very different backgrounds within that broad category. Amy is Chinese American and so driven and harried by expectations of excellence that she’s in a state of throttled rage most of the time. This is the key thing she has in common with Danny, which will create a twisted bond between them. Both are “so sick of smiling” through their woes, they find forbidden joy in acting on directly expressed hatred.

Amy runs a curated plant empire, including one of those godawful stores that look like museum exhibits, in which each ridiculously expensive, preciously potted plant is presented as a separate work of art. She’s about to put through a multimillion-dollar deal selling the whole business to a vastly wealthy monster named Jordan Forster (Maria Bello). Jumping through hoops trying to persuade Jordan to seal the deal, she’s feeling perpetually guilty about not spending enough time with her beloved daughter, June (Remy Holt), and “nice” but clueless stay-at-home husband Joji “George” Nakai (Joseph Lee), a hopelessly untalented artist always spouting New Age aphorisms. She’s also saddled with a harshly judgmental mother-in-law Fumi (Patti Yasutake). In short, Amy is cracking under the strain. But her anguish is all emerging out of personal relationships and monied career developments, very different from Dan’s basic material hardship underlying family turmoil.

Nevertheless, as the episodes unspool, the series focuses more and more on Danny and Amy’s commonality, even as their raging acts of vengeance spin out of control and drag their families and associates into some luridly bad consequences. Lee Sung Jin seems inclined toward broad humanistic conclusions, saying in interviews that the show is ultimately about “how hard it is to be alive.”

And after all, in the end — class issues aside — aren’t Danny and Amy just flawed human beings trapped in a malfunctioning society that pits them against each other? Sure. Sure, sure, sure. Sure. But sometimes I get pretty weary of the almost inevitable “class issues aside” move in popular entertainment. The series goes out of its way to make it clear that both of them have done very bad things in the past, both of them deceive and betray their families, both of them lead creepy, secret emotional lives, both of them gravitate eagerly — even erotically — toward vengeful violence. This insistent equivalence reminds me of the old “cross-class fantasies” made in the Depression era to help tamp down the entirely justified rage of the ever more impoverished working class against the monied elite.

Screwball comedies like It Happened One Night (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), Easy Living (1937), and Bachelor Mother (1939) were wonderfully schematic in pairing off a wealthy person with a struggling working-class person, showing how each had offbeat charm as well as things to teach each other. Aren’t they both — rich person and poor person — eccentric and comedically flawed, yet so lovable? Don’t they go together perfectly to create a more perfect union? No reason for hating one side more than the other, no call for torch-bearing mobs here!

Though Beef has none of the hilarious, upbeat, utopian qualities of screwball comedy, it shares a certain cross-class fantasy logic, only in dark dramedy form. It’s an unpleasant show, really. But then again, we live in a deeply unpleasant culture, and it’s only natural to point it out.

And it’s also a well-made production with a train-wreck fascination that makes it hard to stop watching once you start. I wish the series ran for eight episodes instead of ten — some of the narrative beats start getting predictable as the feud escalates. But still, the show’s erratic momentum holds up well enough to propel you to the much-discussed grand finale of catastrophe, followed by shaky steps toward rapprochement and possible redemption.

A powder keg of growing alienation finally erupting in a chance encounter with a stranger — truly a story for our times.