Netflix’s “Beef” is an entertaining exercise in empathy resembling a pot of oil boiling over, with each new ingredient capable of starting fires and ultimately destroying everything.
Starring Ali Wong and Steven Yeun, the A24-produced series begins with a road-rage incident between Yeun’s character Danny Cho, a failing contractor whose constant denial of culpability causes him to blame others for his problems, and Wong’s character Amy Lau, a self-made entrepreneur who masks her personal demons behind the façade of the American dream.
Both Yeun and Wong are fantastic in their own rights, but when put together, they create a darkly humorous storm of tension and aggression that had me savoring each scene they shared and anticipating the next. Despite being at odds — and at each other’s throats — for the bulk of the show, Yeun and Wong as Danny and Amy have a messy sort of tragic chemistry that often had me thinking, “It’s f*cked up, but in different circumstances, I could see them together.”
The two are not, by any means, masterminds; in fact, their acts of revenge are more petty jabs than calculated schemes. When they do put effort into more subtle acts of aggression, their plans tend to backfire quite spectacularly — and it’s fantastic. The snowballing of ill-advised actions and escalating consequences seem to never end, and although watching their descent is highly entertaining, there were moments wherein I found myself hoping one or the other would come to their senses and just let it all go.
What really makes the show is its supporting cast of characters, including George (Joseph Lee), Amy’s loving but ineffectual artist husband; Paul (Young Mazino), Danny’s despondent younger brother; and Jordan, an ultra-wealthy businesswoman and art collector who demonstrates little respect for culture. Ashley Park as Naomi, a ladder-climbing socialite with nothing but time on her hands, and Justin H. Min as Edwin, an Orange County church leader who hides a jealous frustration behind a pious smile, both gave performances that will have viewers wishing for more time with their characters.
“Beef,” like A24‘s award-winning smash hit “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” masterfully navigates the complicated nuances of Asian American experiences while also going a step further, touching on prejudices and tensions between classes, ethnicities and races. The series preaches empathy over vengeance, framing a wide variety of characters of different backgrounds in ways that initially make them seem far removed from the average American before humanizing them and illustrating just what makes them deserving of compassion.
If there’s anything to be gleaned from “Beef,” it’s that you never know what other people are going through.
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