Danny Cho (Steven Yeun) is about to have a terrible day go way worse. In the first episode of Beef, he attempts to return three hibachi grills to a fictional department store, Forester. Danny is a regular because the clerk gives him a hard time about the return policy. As any consumer should know, you need the receipt to complete the transaction – something Danny forgets. As he gets into his car, it’s clear he’s one more personal infraction from his day of going over the edge.
When Danny backs up, a white SUV lays on the horn for a long time and later flips him off. If Danny’s head could be on fire, it would be. From there, he decides to try to chase the car down as they both destroy property along the way. While he can’t see who is in the SUV (he almost stereotypically thinks it’s a dude behind the wheel), Danny memorizes the license plate. And that’s how Beef beings. I’m sure we’ve all had many instances of road rage which have made us scream so many curse words – it’ll make a nun brush – but it usually ends right there.
Creator/writer Lee Sung Jin builds a story that tackles two characters and the complexities of their public and private personas to an entertaining and astute depth. On one side, there’s the driver behind the SUV, small business owner Amy Lau (Ali Wong). When she gets to her garage, Amy doesn’t even have time to release stress – texts and notifications bombard her. Her boutique store is in talks of being bought by a hardware chain, and she looks at it as a way to balance her life.
Suppose this deal closes with a wealthy and often inappropriate boss mogul (Maria Bello). In that case, Amy can finally be at home more to spend time with her stay-at-home, wellness-oriented, artist-husband George (Joseph Lee) and her daughter June (Remy Holt). George means well, even if the vase sculptures he makes trying to live up to his late father’s artistic legacy might fall short. Amy knows this, too, but there’s something deep inside her other than the pressures of being the breadwinner that she can no longer ignore.
On the flip side, Danny has his heart in the right place, but goes about everything the wrong way. He runs a fledging construction company hoping to bring his mother and father back from Korea to their own home. They had lost their hotel business – possibly due to some illegal activity by his cousin Issac (David Choe). Danny’s relationship with his little brother Paul (Young Mazino) is slightly strained. Paul is into making money in crypto and living life on a whim – coming to odds with Danny’s constant need to hustle.
So, what is the effect of the road rage incident? Well, both of these main characters embody something the other one despises. Danny assumes that everything came easy to Amy and she’s just a rich snob that orders everybody from her luxurious throne. Amy feels like Danny resents that a female got to the position she did, root in sexism. In reality, both of these people are careening into a dark period in their lives – where they must break things under the guise of soul searching.
Things do air on the comedic and silly sides slightly. At one point, Danny pretends to be a maintenance man and pees all over her guest bathroom. In a fit of anger, Amy takes to Yelp, giving Danny’s business one-star reviews and tanking his business. You realize they both are equally prone to horrible decision-making at specific points. (Why not let this go and get on with your lives?) The show also feels the weight of them constantly being in orbit around each other – earmarked with different show titles from famous artists. However, there are enough thrilling and emotionally weighted set pieces both Yeun and Wong excel at to make these breezy 30+ minute episodes worth your while.
You know the saying, you never know what somebody else is going through. Beef puts their characters in a spin cycle of issues – from martial strife, generational trauma, classism, and everything in between. When you think someone can turn on the off-ramp of relief, another thing puts them back on this road to confront their issues. What is “having it all” mean anyway? There’s always a cost – something all the characters find out together.