If you’ve driven for more than a minute in this pavement-covered world of ours, you’ve probably had a startling, infuriating and frustrating encounter with another driver. Horns are honked, expletives fly, a gesture or two might be made – but hopefully that’s about it. You pull yourself together, take a deep breath, shake your head and move on with your day, your week, your life.
What a shame that Danny and Amy didn’t go that route instead of escalating things to the point where Danny follows Amy on a high-speed chase while Amy flips him the bird and throws trash at him, and they tear up a flower bed, and they they almost collide … and then things REALLY get out of hand, to the point where lives are changed forever and property is damaged and blood is spilled, and they both wonder: How did we get here! How on earth did we get here.
That’s the setup for Netflix’s 10-part limited series “Beef,” which plays like “Falling Down” meets “Changing Lanes” with a little “White Lotus” thrown in for good measure, but stands on its own as a bold, darkly funny, emotional bruising, provocative and wickedly clever social satire — the best series I’ve seen this year. Show creator Lee Sung Jin (who also wrote or co-wrote many of the sharp scripts) delivered an instant scorched-earth classic, with Emmy-worthy performances from lead actors Ali Wong and Steven Yeun, and exceptional work from an ensemble cast including Young Mazino, David Chow, Joseph Lee, Patty Yasutake, and Maria Bello. Each episode contains at least one clever twist and some telling revelations, as Danny and Amy continue to make things much worse – even as they try to make things better. They’re two human car crashes tied together in a near-real disaster, and as horrified as we are at their actions, we can’t help but feel sympathy when they spiral out of control.
Each episode of “Beef” is titled after a quote from a heavy thinker, for example “I Am Inhabited by a Cry” (Sylvia Plath), “The Drama of Original Choice” (Simone de Beauvoir), “I am a Cage” (funny Franz Kafka) and ends with a sad pop ballad from the 1990s or 2000s, such as “Drive” by Incubus, “Self Esteem” by The Offspring and “The Reason” by Hoobastank. In the opening episode, called “Birds Don’t Sing, They Squeal in Pain,” Yeun’s Danny has a maddening experience at a big box store called Forsters (no receipt, no returns) and backs up his battered pickup truck into the parking lot when he almost hits (or is hit by) a white Mercedes SUV. Cue the aforementioned chase sequence, with Danny yelling, “I’m sick of this damn thing, every damn day! Where the hell do you think you’re going! Oh my God, you fucking idiot!” (At this point Danny assumes the driver is a man and breaks down for a physical fight.)
On the inside of the Mercedes and there’s Wong’s Amy, her face frozen in a strangely satisfied expression after defeating Danny and screaming. What she doesn’t realize is that Danny has memorized her license plate number, and it won’t be long before they learn their identities and engage in a battle that goes far beyond threatening texts and nasty phone calls.
We get to know Danny and Amy in their very different lives. Danny is a stuck-up entrepreneur who shares a cramped Los Angeles apartment with his lazy younger brother Paul (Mazzino), who is more interested in playing video games, hooking up on Tinder, and dabbling in bitcoins than joining his brother’s business. Amy lives in a spacious, coldly beautiful home in Calabasas with her supportive husband George (Joseph Lee) and their critically injured daughter June (Remy Holt).
She owns and runs a chic plant boutique called Kōyō Haus, and after years of micromanaging, establishing her brand, grueling work hours, etc. etc., she’s about to hit a huge jackpot in the form of an acquisition by the Forsters chain (remember Danny’s date without a receipt there?), which is run by Maria Bello’s Jordan Forster, a New Age billionaire with an insufferably smug behavior. (Jordan, to Amy: “You have this calm, Zen Buddhist thing going on.” She couldn’t be more upset.)
We are introduced to countless fascinating characters, with the stunning David Chow as Danny’s recently paroled, fun-loving but dangerous cousin, Isaac; lovely Patti Yasutake as George’s controlling mother Fumi, and Ashley Park as Jordan’s scheming daughter-in-law who befriends Amy, and Andrew Santino and Rextiesy as a pair of bumbling criminals straight out of a Coen Brothers movie. They all end up caught in the web created by Danny and Amy, who are so consumed with trying to antagonize each other, with trying to ruin each other’s lives, that they don’t see how much they are alike.
The heavy irony is that when Danny and Amy face each other, it’s the only time they can let their guards down and be brutally honest with themselves. These are two angry, frustrated, depressed people, and it all comes down to whether they will save each other or continue to drown together until there is nothing left of one of them.