As the old Klingon proverb goes, “revenge is a dish best served cold.” The one upon whom vengeance is being wreaked is caught unawares by long-frosted fury and doesn’t see the payback coming, and the wait allows the rage to congeal into something the recipient would choke on. It is the wiser approach, but it demands that the wreaker-of-vengeance calm down and bide their time — an unreasonably tall ask when the act of revenge is so instantly and symmetrically satisfying. A pawn for a pawn, an eye for an eye.
Road rage, in contrast, is white-hot, revenge at its most immediate and least thought-through. There is no quarter given, no consideration for the other driver or why they may have entered the wrong lane, no thought to how bad their day may be going. A swearword, a raised middle-finger, a barrage of frenzied honks… this is junk-food revenge. Beef, a sensational Netflix series created by Lee Sung Jin, starts out with this Burger King vengeance as two motorists tangle. One backs into another, the other honks, a middle-finger is raised and soon the two SUVs are Fasting-and-Furiousing it through the California suburbs.
Rage accelerates. The two vehicles — driven by struggling handyman Danny and imminently wealthy business-owner Amy — step it up, mauling rosebushes and jettisoning hibachi grills in their pursuit. Both parties are aggrieved, and neither takes their foot off the gas. Amy gets the better of the exchange, yet Danny brags at home that he “scared the shit out of” the other driver. Meanwhile Amy wants to tell her husband what happened but he conversationally swerves into her lane, cutting her off. She decelerates. She can’t give him the finger. Her engine stalls.
What Amy and Danny have unlocked in each other is an outlet. They are both, we learn, sad people for a multitude of reasons, but anger is something we routinely swallow down. Here they unleash it on each other with full unhinged fury, this road-rage incident gradually derailing their lives. It starts small — he urinates on her newly tiled bathroom floor, she gives him bad online reviews under pseudonyms — and keeps amping up to outrageous levels. Lee Sung Jin has created an instant classic. Beef is a wild series, one that kept taking me by surprise, simultaneously a comedy about empathy and a tragedy about recklessness.
It is also blatant wish-fulfilment — vicarious for all of us who have wrung hands and contemplated (but not acted on) retaliation. That’s what initially makes the show work, pulling double duty as cautionary tale and fantasy. The unrealistic chase sequence at the start feels thrilling because there are times we wish we went that far.
Comedian Ali Wong is fantastic as Amy Lau, a Chinese-Vietnamese storeowner waiting for her life’s work to be acquired by a flaky white millionaire. She has a handsome and sensitive Japanese husband and a cute daughter, but there is much turmoil. She’s exasperated by this house-husband who is both untalented as an artist as well as unable to change a spare tire — “Who’s going to buy Amy something? Amy is!”, she growls — and she has an unexplored edge. The ability to be completely cruel to Danny, her newfound nemesis, liberates her.
Having an arch-enemy sharpens the focus.
Danny Cho — played with wonderful inefficiency by the South Korean actor Steven Yeun, of Burning and Minari — is not a good contractor, though, as with the road-rage, he talks a big game. When a cousin tells him he knows retired Chicago Bulls star Toni Kukoč, Danny immediately declares he could beat the legend in one-on-one basketball. The braggadocio comes from deep personal shame: the shame of not being able to provide a house for his parents, the shame of not looking out for the good of his younger brother, and now the shame of not being able to best that woman on the road. No wonder he’s googling the least painful way to kill himself.
Beef is funny and savage — there is one Parasite level twist hidden in there — but this shapeshifting, genre-defying series excels in finding and exploring the humanity of its many characters. Amy and Danny are so compelling that a show about their oneupmanship could be enough, but Beef explores the frustration simmering on various stoves: there is Danny’s brother Paul (a superb Young Mazino) whose voicemail says “Don’t be old, just text me” and who hides behind online alter-egos and Instagram flirtations; there is Amy’s mother-in-law Fumi (Patty Yasutake) sitting at a restaurant alone with nobody returning her calls except her accountant. Everybody is stewing.
There are times when the timing is the trigger. It would be fantastically convenient to know where exactly our breaking point lies, which particular straw would snap the camel’s back, precisely what bridge is too far. We don’t have a clue. Something — something said, something done — pushes us over the line without warning. It may be called a slight but it feels unbearable. Things we can’t un-see, things we can’t look past.
“Maybe ‘normal people’ are just delusional fucked-up people,” muses Amy, touching on the interconnectedness of broken people — are there any other kind? Are we all misfit toys just angry by default, struggling to get by? Beef doesn’t provide answers but does lead to questioning, and — in strange and surprising ways — to calmness.
In the end we’re all holding on to what we can, and anger is just one more thing to grip — that, at times, feels surer and more certain. Yet, like the recoil of a shotgun, this hurts us, and we spend too long fixated on vengeance. No matter how the revenge is served, the beef strikes back.
Beef may leave you wanting a lot more Ali Wong, and Netflix has you sorted with stand-up comedy specials Baby Cobra, Hard Knock Wife and Don Wong. She also stars in the rom-com Always Be My Maybe and the delightful animated series Tuca & Bertie.