They’re chasing each other along a sunny, suburban California street. He’s driving a crappy red truck, she’s in a posh white SUV.
‘I got you, mother***er,’ yells the pent-up guy, chasing the SUV. ‘I’m so f*****g sick of this shit! Every f*****g day!’
Cursing (a lot), swerving, revving, mounting sidewalks, dodging on-coming traffic – this is full-throttle, roaring road rage. And everything you need to know about http://netflix.com’s new smash-hit Beef is there in this opening scene.
He’s poor. She’s rich. He’s disenfranchised. She’s entitled. And they’re both really, really angry.
Two people. Thrown into each other’s paths on their own very different, very bad days.
Danny (Steven Yeun) – a failing construction worker – almost reverses into Amy (Ali Wong) – an unhappily married millionaire who’s at a breaking point over the imminent $10million sale of her luxury plants business.
He’s at his lowest and has been planning to commit suicide by lighting hibachi grills in his bedroom and inhaling the carbon monoxide.’
‘Nobody understands,’ he says, tearfully, sitting before the lighted grills following the road rage incident. ‘And when I’m dead, you will see.’ With the carbon monoxide detector beeping like crazy, he has a change of heart: ‘No, this is not it.’ It’s kind of sad. And, also, kind of hilarious at the same time.
Choosing life over death – ‘Sometimes your rock bottom is your trampoline,’ Danny tells his brother Paul (Young Mazino) – the chance encounter with Amy proves to be a catalyst that sparks in them both a cycle of increasingly reckless revenge and bad decisions. Ten episodes of anxiety-ridden ridiculousness in which neither party, for whatever reason, will let go of their ‘beef’ – the quarrel kind, not the bovine – no matter the consequences.
Affairs, felonies, death and destruction – Korean writer Lee Sung Jin delivers it all in his expert script.
Within days of debuting on Netflix last week, Beef was already being lauded as an instant success – securing a highly coveted ‘perfect’ 100 per cent score on rating-website Rotten Tomatoes. It’s not hard to see why.
Amy is proof that money really doesn’t buy you happiness.
The question of the series is whether anger can buy clarity.
Despite her obvious successes, Amy hates being the family wage-earner, wishes she spent more time with her daughter and resents her deadbeat stay-at-home husband George (Joseph Lee), whose worthless vase sculptures look like giant male genitalia that have been stung by a vicious wasp and never recovered. ‘The globs, they don’t feel too out of place in here?’ Amy tentatively asks the gallery assistant – another Amy (Mia Serafino), after being pushed into displaying another of his monstrosities that she secretly hates.
Even his overbearing mother Fumi (Patti Yasutake) agrees: ‘He’s no artist’.
The gap between what George and Amy each want from life provides much of the show’s comedy. Unwillingly taken to a ceremony focused on ‘the exploration of fungal utility’ – basically, a ludicrous magic mushroom celebration – Amy is quick to point out: ‘George, they’re normal mushrooms. This is so stupid.’
Host Jordan (Maria Bello) – has an enraptured room: ‘As my father used to say, “You can eat any mushroom once.’ ” You can almost hear Amy’s teeth gritting through her forced smile, as an admiring George erupts into laughter and joins in the applause. Gosh, he’s such a d**k.
Amy wants more from life – and she’s certainly not finding it in the bedroom with George and what she calls his ‘vanilla’ sex. (Though quite why she resorts to masturbating with a gun is anybody’s guess. It would be put to better use to take out George).
Perhaps that explains her strict secrecy when it comes to her war with Danny – she needs a private outlet, even if the fear of having her crazed obsession discovered threatens to drive her mad.
Danny’s life is equally lonely – as he slips from one busted business venture to the next, barely managing to support the computer-gaming obsessed Paul.
As a Korean immigrant who left his parents behind, Danny will move hell and high water to buy his mom and dad a house in the US. But his credit is terrible – and his ex-con cousin Isaac (David Choe) keeps popping up to lead him astray.
Along with Paul, they’re a perfect trio of incompetent musketeers who can’t seem to get anything right. The ‘American Dream’ is proving rather elusive.
At the heart of this show lies an age-old question: what really makes a person happy? As Danny asks: ‘Why is it so hard for us to be happy?’
But it’s also about so much more. It’s about class, love, sex, greed, satisfaction, selfishness, selflessness – and yet somehow, it’s never preachy.
This show masters the important dramatic rule: ‘Show, don’t tell.’
Amy’s quivering top lip hovers over her teeth, like a theatre curtain struggling to come down, as she stares vacantly at her husband, whose know-it-all right on-ness is a masterclass in condescension. ‘Maybe we should start doing the gratitude journals again,’ he gently suggests, as she fumes about the road rage incident.
Danny’s contorted face burns red as he fights back tears throughout, teetering on the edge of breakdown.
These shots say it all. For, in many ways, this pair of unlikely enemies are also remarkably similar.
Both dissatisfied with their lots in life; both failing to meet the expectations of their families; both battling a niggling internal trauma.
But there are also countless unexpected twists and turns, told with immense deftness and often a lightness of touch that belies the seriousness of the message.
By turns intense, emotional, lyrical, slapstick, even utterly farcical, Beef lulls you into a false sense of security that makes the one heart-in-mouth moment of utter Tarantino-esque grossness in episode 9 wham you over the head even harder.
But that’s what Korean black comedies do best.
The rest of the world first woke up to the true potential of the genre in 2020, when Bong Joon-ho’s phenomenal film Parasite became the first non-English language movie to win Best Picture at the Oscars.
And for those who still weren’t paying attention, Netflix’s 2021 Squid Game series put Korean drama firmly on the map. Clocking up a staggering 1.65 billion viewing hours, it quickly became Netflix’s most-watched show – despite the need for subtitles.
Beef is in English but has all the unmistakable hallmarks of a genre that likes to lead you by the hand down one path, only to pull you back at the last minute – and send everything spinning on its head.
Remember the first mass murder scene in Squid Game? And how quickly we all went from ‘WHAAAAAAAT?’ to: ‘Oh, I get it now. Who’s next to die?’
These shows bring out the darkness in us all – as shock soon becomes the new normal, and grotesque horror subsides to belly laughter.
Why aren’t we repulsed? Why aren’t we rushing to the moral high ground with our placards, denouncing these shows?
Quite simply: because they’re genius. And Beef really is a cut above.