'Beef' Review: Steven Yeun, Ali Wong Netflix Comedy
Beef. (L to R) Steven Yeun as Danny, Ali Wong as Amy in episode 107 of Beef. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

‘Beef’ Review: Steven Yeun, Ali Wong Netflix Comedy

We abhor most in others what we already hate in ourselves. So it is that Amy Lau (Ali Wong) and Danny Cho (Steven Yeun) become mortal enemies despite being kindred spirits. The protagonists of the Netflix half-hour “Beef” first meet when both are behind the wheel, navigating the parking lot of a Lowe’s-like home improvement store. Each driver is there for different reasons: Danny is a handyman who works at the Reseda motel his family used to own; Amy owns a houseplant boutique the hardware chain is in talks to acquire. But both react in the exact same way to a minor spat over exiting a spot. Their explosive road rage propels the pair on a chase across the suburban San Fernando Valley, then through 10 episodes of increasingly out-of-hand emotional warfare.

Wong and Yeun have served as co-stars before — on the animated sitcom “Tuca & Bertie” on which “Beef” creator Lee Sung Jin also worked as a writer. Live action, nonetheless, allows the actors to occupy the same physical space, where they forge a chemistry that anchors “Beef” through its stop-and-start pacing and wild tonal swings. The structure of “Beef” mostly keeps Amy and Danny in their own separate spheres, enhancing the impact the few times they meet face-to-face. Their banter has a biting ferocity, rooted in a sense this dispute gives the characters room to let out the anger and frustration they otherwise repress. No wonder they can’t seem to let it go.

“Beef” marks a departure for both its lead performers. Since his days on “The Walking Dead,” Yeun has evolved into a modern movie star, earning an Oscar nomination for “Minari” and carrying the themes of Jordan Peele’s “Nope.” “Beef” marks Yeun’s triumphant return to television, and a break from the chilly confidence of Ben, the antagonist in Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning,” or “Nope’s” Jupe, who hides his trauma under a huckster’s bravado. Danny is an earnest striver, like “Minari’s” Jacob, but he lacks the competence or resolve required to muscle one’s way to the American dream. He’s a beta male through and through, trapped in the shadow of his parents, who expect he’ll pay their way back from South Korea, and of his cousin Isaac (the artist David Choe), whose shady dealings are the reason the Chos lost the motel and repatriated in the first place. Like “Succession’s” Tom Wambsgans, Danny takes his insecurity out on the closest, safest target: his younger brother Paul (Young Mazino), a man-child obsessed with video games and cryptocurrency. Yeun is a heartthrob in real life, yet believable in “Beef” as one of life’s losers.

For Wong, “Beef” is more a change of medium than material. Leading a live-action prestige series is new for the comedian, but Amy’s biography bears a striking resemblance to the persona Wong presents in her stand-up. Like Wong, Amy is the half-Vietnamese, half-Chinese working mother of a young daughter who’s still getting used to out-earning her more affluent (by birth) husband. In light of Wong’s recent, real-life divorce, the parallels are bound to inspire speculation. Whatever their source, though, Amy’s rage and insecurity are deeply felt. Wong’s comedy is loud and raunchy, and she channels some of that into Amy (especially during the sex scenes). But “Beef” allows her to explore similar ideas — taboo topics like women’s ambition and primal instincts — more quietly and in close-up. Besides, you can’t use a gun as a sex toy onstage.

As “Beef” goes on, it spirals ever further out from its more grounded emotional concerns. As Amy’s husband George, Joseph Lee is note-perfect as a naïve dope who, while nominally interested in understanding the abyss where his wife’s sense of self should be, just isn’t able to. But Amy’s new boss Jordan (Maria Bello) and nosy neighbor Naomi (Ashley Park) are caricatures out of another show. Choe, who contributes original art to the episodes’ title cards after the pilot, starts off as effective typecasting; where Yeun transforms into an aggrieved sad-sack, his co-star barely mediates the abrasive, larger-than-life personality shown in prior projects like “The Choe Show.” Yet as the action escalates to ever-higher extremes, Choe gets dragged out of his comfort zone and the naturalism that comes with it.

A product of the hyper-hip A24, “Beef” announces its ambition early, naming episodes after quotes by Kafka, Carl Jung and other intellectuals. Some elements, like wry humor, work to offset such self-seriousness. (Danny argues Koreans and Italians have a natural affinity due to “peninsula mindset”; George tries to live up to the legacy of his famous artist father with distinctly phallic sculptures.) Others, like cartoonish violence or bouts of the surreal, tend to distract from the show’s core insights. Amy and Danny may differ in gender, class and career path, but they share a self-destructive nihilism that each seems to recognize in the other, even if they can’t articulate it. When “Beef” keeps its focus on these characters and the worlds they inhabit — like the Orange County Korean church where Danny starts to volunteer, or the high-powered conference where Amy sermonizes about “having it all” — the more it does right by the performers at its heart.

“Beef” premieres on Netflix on April 6.