‘Beef’ Review: Ali Wong and Steven Yeun Lead One of the Best Shows of 2023

The Netflix dramedy from Lee Sung Jin is possibly the most unselfconsciously Asian American series in mainstream television

Steven Yeun as Danny (left) and Ali Wong as Amy in a still from "Beef."

Halfway through the seventh episode of “Beef,” the new Netflix dramedy starring Steven Yeun and Ali Wong, an eerie motif begins popping up for the first time. At a lunch where Danny (Yeun) is characteristically lying to dig his way out of another hole, he opens up earnestly about an inexplicable feeling that has always been chasing him.

“I’ve been hustling my whole life, you know? Like, even just for the basics,” Danny says. “And I always thought the hustle was the cause of this feeling, but now I’m just starting to wonder if it’s just always there.” Following this admission, the scene cuts to a split-second of some nondescript section of dirt in the ground, the camera zooming in over a chilling score. The mysterious image essentially comes and goes only in this episode, until it’s finally and somewhat imperfectly explained in the show’s knockout finale.

Yet it’s a late moment from which the series, a cosmic tragedy and one of the best shows of the year thus far, really begins to coalesce around what it’s aiming to explore: the existential anguish of being alive, of feeling like you can’t escape yourself or the world, and the alienating emptiness of the American Dream.

This is all to say that one partly wishes “Beef” — a quietly meticulous and richly emotional work from creator Lee Sung Jin — suffused this ethos of greater, abstract pain more frequently and earlier into the show (though the gloriously baroque title cards do as much each episode). Up until this point, “Beef” revels, with a great degree of success, instead in the soap opera that unfolds after the angry run-in that opens the pilot episode.

Danny (Yeun), a contractor who just can’t seem to catch a break and who’s struggling to make the money to bring his parents back to America from Korea, nearly gets into a car accident with a stranger named Amy (Wong), a successful business owner who feels suffocated by her life. A mad road rage-fueled car chase ensues, ultimately setting off a spiral of vengeance across the show as Danny and Amy unleash the pent-up fury within their own lives onto each other.

Yet there’s a sense somewhere along the middle stretch that as sharply funny and rollicking as all of this chaos is, the series is briefly missing a central thematic engine, a grander purpose beyond a show simply about two embittered people taking swings at each other.

This isn’t to say it fails in any way. “Beef” consistently and nimbly balances many things: a biting comedy of classes, a skewering portrait of Los Angeles, and possibly the most unselfconsciously Asian American — in the details of its world-building, in its characters’ motivations and conflicted sense of the world — show that mainstream television has ever seen.

Steven Yeun as Danny in a still from “Beef.”

Much of this comes down to its strong cast, including newcomers like Young Mazino and painter David Choe, a surprising standout as a largely first-time actor. But most of all, the show is elevated by Yeun and Wong, and the antagonistic soul mates their characters find in each other. Within all their finely-tuned comedic rage, there’s an afflicted pathos the two imbue in Danny and Amy, the heartbreak and desperate humanity constantly bubbling under the surface as they continue to dig themselves deeper into their war of catfishing, breaking and entering, kidnapping and the like.

This largely comes as no surprise from the Oscar-nominated Yeun, but Wong steps into her first big dramatic lead with remarkable natural ability as a woman who is undone by her seemingly picturesque life. In her and Danny, we see two poles of the same distinctly American ailment. As they both strive toward the shiny vestments of professional upward mobility — Danny, down-on-his luck, trying to be a self-made man who can just prove that he’s successful; and Amy, already successful but struggling to find a way to “have it all” as a present wife and mother — there’s an unexplained emptiness that can’t be explained and refuses to go away.

In the scene immediately following Danny’s lunch admission, he ambushes Amy at a party in her house. In a brief detente, he asks earnestly if she’s happy. “All your hard work paid off, right? You’re fulfilled?” Danny wonders desperately. “I just want to know if I’ve got to get to where you are.” The nice house, the posh dinner parties, the boss life. “Everything fades. Nothing lasts,” Amy responds bleakly. “We’re just a snake eating its own tail.”

Ali Wong as Amy in a still from “Beef.”

At the start of the show, it seems clear that Amy’s inability to escape from work and the relentless demands of life is what constitutes her rage and disillusionment. But, she seems to be telling Danny it’s all just a distraction from a greater void within her. (This, perhaps, is where the show’s restraint around its bigger themes is remarkable: despite a couple flashbacks to their childhood, the series offers no definitive answer to what’s at the heart of Danny and Amy’s existential sadness.)

“Beef” is really about this dissonance — striving toward an American ideal of happiness, the chase for more, only to realize that the dream is just a gilded nightmare — and what you end up doing when you can’t figure out why the pieces won’t fit. Early on in the series, Amy recounts to her therapist something her mom, a Vietnamese immigrant, had once told her.

“She told me that the first time she heard birds singing was when she came to America, because during the Vietnam War, they ate all the birds,” she says. “Can you imagine what that does to a person? No birds.” Crows, it turns out, become the show’s most consistent motif, a sign of doom. What do you do when you’ve been repeatedly told the birds in the land of plenty have been singing, when in fact, as the pilot episode’s title suggests, they’re screeching in pain?

“Beef” is now streaming on Netflix.