I have a simple test when it comes to good television: Did it make me put my phone down?
I partake in what’s known as ambient TV, where there’s something on while I’m folding laundry or cleaning up my living room or on my phone, texting friends or tweeting to non-friends. The less interested I am in a show, the more texts get sent, the crisper the folds are, and the cleaner my coffee table is. To get me to forget my phone, my T-shirts, and my dirty coffee table, a show has to knock me out.
And right now the show doing that is Netflix and A24’s anxiety-inducing Beef.
My only texts to friends were in the brief seconds between each episode.
“Did you start Beef?”
“I like that this is obliquely a show about hot Asians hotting hottily”
“Ali Wong is doing fantastic stuff. Is this about her divorce? I think it’s about her divorce.”
Beef creates commanding television by twisting the idea of a fateful encounter. Usually, when humans talk about chance meetings with other humans, we think of the positive. Like there’s a one in 8 billion chance of meeting your soulmate, or it’s some kind of lucky coincidence that a stranger may change your life for the better. People come into your life for a reason, we’re told (often by people who have seemingly come into our lives to dispense this saccharine view of the world).
Beef proposes the frightening scenario in which a once-in-a-lifetime moment could result in finding your mortal enemy, and the terrifying possibility that someone we’ve never met before could change our lives for the worse.
In Beef, revenge isn’t just personal
Like all good tragedies, Beef begins in a home improvement store called Forster’s. Danny Cho (Steven Yeun), who dreams of making enough money to bring his hard-working parents back from Korea and letting them retire, is faced with the grim reality of trying to return multiple hibachi grills without a receipt. Anyone who has ever tried knows that returning an item without a receipt is an impossible, Sisyphean task, an endless loop of questions and answers designed to break a person’s soul.
But Danny’s already broken, mainly because he’s extremely broke — which also explains why he’s returning the hibachi grills. Danny’s construction projects are few and far between, his parents are back home in Korea struggling, and he’s taken it upon himself to support not only himself but his younger brother, Paul (Young Mazino).
In that same store but in a seemingly very different place in her life is Amy Lau (Ali Wong), the founder of Kōyōhaus, a bougie plant store. Amy is in the midst of brokering an acquisition deal with Jordan Forster (Maria Bello), the head of Forster’s. Selling Kōyōhaus to Jordan would mean millions of dollars for Amy and her family, and a life where she can relax.
Her husband George (Joseph Lee) and their daughter June (Remy Holt) already live an extremely comfortable life full of pottery, cute dogs, and meditation thanks to Amy’s ambition and sacrifice. Amy herself has been too busy providing for her family to enjoy the life she’s built, though. And Jordan is giving her the runaround, leveraging the deal to get Amy to do whatever she asks, even though there are already plenty of people in Amy’s life — her husband, her daughter, her employees — asking too much of her.
Amy and Danny have just two things in common: They are at their limit and they are in the Forster’s parking lot.
He’s backing out. She’s rushing home. She honks. He honks back. She pauses and puts up a middle finger. A screeching episode of Southern California road rage ensues — running red lights, swerving up onto sidewalks, throwing bottled drinks, and cursing the other’s existence.
Neither one can let the anger go, and it becomes a moment that changes their lives forever.
Instead of brushing it off, Amy and Danny each memorize the other’s license plate and begin an escalating war of terror. Danny visits her house under the pretense of being a good Samaritan contractor. He asks to use the bathroom and pees all over her renovated commode.
Amy retaliates by spray-painting his beat-up truck with insults like “I am poor.” Danny almost arsons Amy’s luxury SUV with her daughter inside it, and that’s just in the third episode. Danny’s decision not to set Amy’s SUV ablaze with a toddler inside is one of the few, brief moments of relief that showrunner Lee Sung Jin gives the audience over the show’s 10 propulsive episodes.
What makes Beef so anxiety-inducing and so gripping is that it fully explores what it means to hurt someone. Sure, Amy and Danny could resort to violence and physically harm the other, but that’s almost too simple. They want more.
As they learn more about each other, they both realize they can do the most hurt by taking aim at the people the other person loves most. And as the show unfurls, there’s an increasing, heart-in-your-stomach fear that Danny will go after June or George or that Amy may retaliate by hurting Paul or Danny’s parents — innocent people who have no part in this feud.
The more Amy and Danny ramp up their feud, the more vulnerable their family members become. Amy and Danny inadvertently distance themselves from their loved ones, in an effort to keep their escalating war a secret. And insidiously, Amy and Paul become more entrenched in each other’s lives.
Beef’s ending was perfect, it doesn’t need another season
Beef’s revenge tragedy finds success mainly because of Yeun and Wong’s stellar performances. The series wouldn’t work if Amy and Danny were just reprehensible sociopaths. Sociopaths don’t feel loss, and if either of these characters slipped into that territory, Beef would have no tension. Amy and Danny need to have dreams and desires that the audience believes in and wants to see them achieve, and both Yeun and Wong imbue their characters with humanity to achieve that. Especially Wong, who showed flashes of her acting ability in Amazon’s Paper Girls and a nuanced understanding of married life in her standup specials. She creates a shambling and quietly ferocious Amy. It doesn’t hurt that Lee Sung Jin’s material is top-notch.
While Beef is primarily about vengeance, it sizzles as class warfare commentary and, at times, a satire of the intersections of wealth and ethnicity in America.
The fascinating thing in Beef is that the class struggle is told through a distinct Asian-American lens. Beef’s writers understand that the Asian-American experience isn’t a monolith. Those experiences are influenced by affluence, ethnicity, immigration, and assimilation, among other things. Beef’s writers aren’t afraid to explore the power and privilege dynamic of Amy, a child of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants, marrying George, a Japanese man who came from money and whose mother speaks perfect English. Though she does not have writing credits on the show, Wong has touched upon similar subjects in her standup comedy.
George and Amy never see the world, see ambition, see their lives, and see each other in the same way. She never feels good enough, and he can’t begin to understand that. An added layer is Danny, who comes from a working-class Korean family, flatly resents that both these people can’t quite recognize how blessed they are.
Richer than everyone on the show is Bello’s Jordan — a character who at one point mourns the matching earrings for one of her many tribal headdresses, which she had to return to the Peruvian government. She’s the show’s absurd, eat-the-rich main course. Jordan is always gliding in and out of Amy’s life, aware enough to hold the deal over Amy’s head but not fully cognizant of the resentment. This is its own type of privilege, the inability to comprehend that the Asian-American woman whose life she’s making absolute hell totally hates her.
It’s fitting then that this aloof heiress’s fantastic compound in some rural, undisclosed Southern California location is where Beef finds its maximalist climax.
After inadvertently kidnapping June, Danny runs into his cousin Isaac (David Choe), who is on the run from gangsters. Isaac owes the gang money. Danny owes Isaac money. Isaac takes June and uses her as ransom, extorting Amy for $500,000 she doesn’t easily have. Instead of paying cash, Amy finagles a plan for Isaac and his goons to rob Jordan’s house, which leads to a shootout, Jordan accidentally bisected by her state of the art panic room, and Amy and Danny running each other off the road and over a cliff.
Given the height of the fall and the fragility of human bones, Amy and Danny should be dead. But, I guess, hating someone can be enough to keep you alive; a powerful motivating factor to survive to see them die. Beaten up and broken, the two get high on poisonous berries and finally come to see the totality of their feud; how a parking lot incident may result in both of them lonely and dying at the dusty bottom of a Southern California canyon.
Yeun and Wong play the final episode beautifully, as each character gives the other a cathartic therapy session. Amy tells Danny that she hates George’s art, that his vases are ugly, and that she never felt at home with him. Danny tells Amy that he never stopped thinking of Paul as a kid, and never saw Paul as the man he is. They both talk about being seen, who they really are, and where their anger comes from. And all they needed was someone to listen.
When morning comes, Amy and Danny, now unusually close, make their way back to the main road and ostensibly civilization. George, who has been tracking Amy’s phone, interrupts them. He’s holding a gun and, believing Danny to be violent, shoots him. The final scenes have Amy silently curling up next to Danny in his hospital bed as he recovers. Amy’s future with her family is unclear, as is Danny and his. Just as when the show began, in this moment, Amy and Danny are the only people that exist to each other.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Lee Sung Jin said that there has been no word on renewal, but that he’s plotted out three seasons in his head. Full disclosure: I am not a showrunner and am simply just a consumer, but I think another season of Danny and Amy’s story would be a mistake.
Both of them realizing and understanding the person on the other end of their feud, and finding a way to forgive not just that person but also themselves, was such a moving end to this ulcer-inducing season. I don’t need to find out what happens to these characters going forward, whether that’s Amy patching up things with George or Danny making a full recovery and reaching out to Paul. I also am not terribly interested in a storyline featuring this pair’s regression, which would inevitably lead us back to the same story of escalation. It’d more than likely wipe away the stakes that kept me invested. As much as I want to see more of Ali Wong and Steve Yeun, they’ve told Amy and Danny’s story to its perfect, satisfying end.
That said, I would fully support Beef done in an anthology style with a whole new set of characters — a different beef in a different place, with two new people destined to ruin their lives over someone they hate. I wouldn’t even be the slightest bit opposed to Wong and Yeun coming back and playing different characters. What I’d hate to see is Beef overdone and overworked, so that it no longer resembles the kind of show that would stop me from doing laundry.