"Jesus did tons of nice things, look what they did to him."
The persistent theme of Beef, Netflix's 10-episode series starring Steven Yeun and Ali Wong, is one of futility; aimed at both the mistakes we often seem fated to make and the seeming impossibility of reversing the course of our lives.
It's not really a binge watch, is what I'm saying.
None of which is apparent at the outset. The incident kicking off events is a road rage incident between Yeun's down-on-his-luck handyman Donny and Wong's successful yet repressed plant store owner Amy. A car chase ensues, and at the end of the first episode as Amy is preparing to go HAM on Donny, you might think you're in for some hilarious shenanigans.
In truth, before all is said and done, lives are upended, innocent bystanders catfished, marriages destroyed, and quite a few people end up dead.
Netflix bills this as a "comedy drama," and what comedy there is to be had is darker than a black steer's tuchus on a moonless prairie night. It maintains the framework of the genre thanks to inherent ridiculousness of the premise and some moments of general hilarity, but despair permeates the entire project, and the underlying issues are all to real.
The brainchild of writer "Sonny" Lee Sung Jin (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, 2 Broke Girls, and Thunderbolts, an upcoming MCU entry), Beef goes in unexpected directions, some of which feel unnecessary at first, but end up coming together by series end. Things take a surreal turn at the end, when we're introduced to the personification of Amy's inferiority/imposter complex and we learn the true depth of Danny's insecurity, and what it's led him to do in the past.
Yeun and Wong, who formerly "appeared" together on Tuca & Bertie, are first-rate. Yeun has demonstrated his chops repeatedly ever since Negan bashed his brain in. And while Wong is probably best known for her stand-up specials (Baby Cobra remains my favorite), we've seen her capable of drama before (Always Be My Maybe).
But that was expected, and while the show doesn't lean as heavily on its supporting cast, some performances stand out. Young Mazino (Donny's dour younger brother Paul), David Choe (his sketchy cousin Isaac) and Maria Bello (billionaire Jordan, who wants to buy Amy's store) are especially notable.
Lee builds the anticipation throughout the show's run, and as Donny and Amy's lies and deceptions stack up, it truly becomes a question of how in the hell everything is going to end. Through it all, the pair continue to slog through the malaise of their daily lives, expressing sometimes righteous indignation at the ignorance and obliviousness of those around them.
Beef is no cautionary tale. Indeed, the entire shitstorm is kicked off by a perfectly understandable incident. It's a real indictment of 21st century when honking at someone or flipping them off in traffic seem like perfectly reasonable responses to self-hatred and shame mixed with the everyday indignities most of us are forced to endure.
Even so, by the end, Lee really pushes the envelope of what we'll accept from our so-called protagonists. Some things are still, one assumes, unforgivable. Recognizing that, even if it's out of our power to change, may be the only thing we all still have in common.
Beef is now streaming on Netflix.