Created by Lee Sung Jin (Netflix, 2023)
Broken people doing despicable things that they’d rather not do. Broken people who really want to lead good lives but constantly fail due to family obligations, personal demons, and poor decision-making under duress. This is the heart of the Netflix dramedy Beef.
Beef is sometimes funny, often tragic, occasionally disturbing, and in the end heartbreaking. Created by Korean American writer Lee Sung Jin, the series stars Ali Wong and Steven Yeun as two Los Angelenos who escalate a minor road rage incident into a major feud. Danny (Yeun) is a struggling contractor who is single and trying to buy a beautiful retirement home for his parents while keeping an eye on his younger brother and ne’er-do-well cousin. Amy (Wong), who appears to be an icon of the “you can have it all” power-woman of the 21st century, is a wealthy entrepreneur, mother, and wife of an artist. As the series unfolds, the original traffic incident escalates into a revenge tale of mutually assured destruction in ways that are almost unimaginable. But the plot works, because these escalations are grounded in the concrete lives of the characters and the simmering sense of rage that undergirds so much of daily life in the United States.
Beef is a drama about the messiness and moral ambiguity of being human in a world of duress and the constant need to wear public masks to hide brokenness and insecurity. As the show peels away the layers of these characters, their increasingly unhinged actions begin to make a disturbing kind of sense.
The series earns its MA rating, but not in an exploitative way. It reaches for transcendence by wading in the muck of human brokenness. The stellar writing and Wong’s and Yeun’s brave performances draw us into a world where many characters seek love and redemption but are incapable of realizing either. And really, isn’t the gospel full of characters just like these?
This article also appears in the October 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 10, page 38). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Courtesy of Netflix © 2022