Welcome to Up Next, a recurring column keeping an eye out for the best new shows on the horizon. This week, TV critic Valerie Ettenhofer checks in with a review of Netflix’s Beef.
Amy (Ali Wong) and Danny (Steven Yeun) have beef. Their feud starts pretty simply; one nearly backs into the other in a hardware store parking lot. A horn is honked, and a bird is flipped. It’s the kind of aggressive 30-second exchange that happens every day, but for these two, it’s just the first furious chess move of many. Across ten episodes of the searingly intense new Netflix series Beef, the pair stomp around the fringes of one another’s lives, escalating the fight in increasingly elaborate and alarming ways. The result is a bizarre and often unnerving watch, but also a great one; Beef might be the most creatively audacious single season of TV Netflix has delivered since 2018’s Maniac.
The show, created by Lee Sung Jin (Tuca & Bertie, Undone), sets its two leads against each other from the start. Danny is a broke contractor struggling to get work from clients who are put off by his striving personality. He can’t seem to move through the world as he wants to, although he has an easy kinship with his younger brother Paul (Young Mazino) and sketchy cousin Isaac (David Choe).
Amy, meanwhile, has a seemingly perfect life that’s about as deep as a puddle. Her husband, George (Joseph Lee), inundates her with platitudes at every turn. Still, his artist family also provides the money for their elegant lifestyle with their young daughter, Junie (Remy Holt). Amy runs an upscale plant shop and is on the verge of making bank selling it to a wealthy and unbearable woman named Jordan (Maria Bello) – if she can stop clenching her teeth so hard they could break.
This setup is important because every aspect of Danny’s meager life and Amy’s lavish one ends up in jeopardy when the pair become obsessed with making one another pay. The darkly comic series, at times, dances on the edge of surreality thanks to the pair’s relentless, near-pathological need to undermine one another, but it’s not just a Loony Tunes bit come to life. Danny and Amy both simmer with justified rage, much of it tied to their experiences as Asian Americans in a world of white excess. White characters constantly praise Amy for her “zen” outlook on life, even though she looks seconds away from throwing a punch at all times. Race-based expectations shape her persona, just as they shape Danny’s life as he attempts to climb a social ladder that seems to have a few rungs broken.
Beef is bold: at its heart, it explores rage from the perspective of two characters on different sides of the American dream. It doesn’t stop there, though. The show makes Danny and Amy into self-destructive yet complementary forces, driven by stubbornness, loneliness, and every icky emotion that TV execs probably tell creators they shouldn’t make shows around. Its revenge story, which takes place over an extended period and destabilizes everyone in the pair’s orbit, is darkly funny and shatteringly upsetting. In terms of viewing experiences that put a pit in your stomach, it’s reminiscent of Breaking Bad – each propulsive plot point hinges on the characters doing precisely what you wish they wouldn’t.
The show constantly takes big swings, and one of its biggest is casting both its leads against type. Wong may be known best for her comedic work, but here reaches deep for a performance defined by its quiet desperation and seething rage. The result is stunningly compelling, as is Yeun’s turn as a wildly unlikeable man who would be furiously jealous of the charms of pretty much every other Yeun character. The show revels in the flaws of both characters, examining them in the light of day without a prescriptive narrative, and both actors deliver the rawness required and then some.
The ensemble cast is also excellent. Bello and Ashley Park put in slyly comedic performances as two wealthy women who Amy looks to as business mentors. At the same time, Lee plays George with a hilarious vapidity underpinned by genuine compassion. Mazino is the supporting cast standout, imbuing Paul with as many complex dimensions as either of the main characters – while making him more likable than both.
While watching Beef, I was struck by the same thought again and again: this is the first show I’ve watched in a long time in which I well and truly had no idea what would happen next. The series possesses a strong sense of visual style thanks to directors including Hikari (37 Seconds) and Jake Schreier (Robot & Frank). Its episodes typically end with a ’90s alt-rock track, and one move by Amy or Danny often leads to retaliation by the other. Yet despite these few constants, this story smashes expectations every step of the way, whether it’s humanizing someone after their most unforgivable action or escalating its tension to a nerve-shredding new degree. Until its final moments, Beef will find new ways to blow you away.
Beef debuts on Netflix on April 6th. Watch the series trailer here.