Television writer Lee Sung Jin had only briefly stalled at a green light when the person behind him began to honk aggressively. As Lee jolted alert, a white BMW SUV pulled up beside him. The driver rolled down his window, screamed some choice words and drove away.
Ordinarily, Lee might have brushed off the incident. But he and the BMW both turned out to be taking the same exit in Santa Monica, California. It occurred to Lee that, by simply going home, he was now following the angry driver.
He wasn’t doing it on purpose. But what if he had been? He began to wonder about the sorts of assumptions we project onto others: What compelled the driver to blow up at him? Did Lee seem to be a more malicious person behind the wheel? The questions rattled around his brain until he reached the natural conclusion for a writer: Hey, maybe there’s something here.
And so we have ‘Beef’, the 10-episode Netflix series released recently about a pair of deeply dissatisfied strangers whose lives become intertwined after a road rage incident. Driving the white SUV this time around — a Mercedes-Benz instead of a BMW — is Amy Lau (Ali Wong), a self-made business owner who flips out after a pickup truck driven by struggling contractor Danny Cho (Steven Yeun) nearly backs into her car in a parking lot.
The show diverges from real life when Danny chases after Amy, each of them driving recklessly. He follows her all the way to Calabasas, California, mounting curbs and flattening flower beds along the way.
He gives up when she nearly crashes into him — on purpose. But this isn’t their last encounter. Amy and Danny continue to sabotage one another off the road, acting out of both jealousy and disdain. They keep tabs on one another online. While Amy hustles to support her family, Danny makes her out to be a housewife bored of her idyllic life with a supportive husband and daughter. Meanwhile, Amy craves the freedom but loathes the sexism she senses in Danny, who in turn feels bogged down by the expectations placed on him as the oldest child in an immigrant family.
“I’ve always wanted to dive into the more existential feelings that pervade the show,” says series creator Lee. “Rage is almost a fun Trojan horse. It’s such a universal thing, where all of us in a split second ... can go from being so agreeable to just a rabid animal.”
Nearly a decade ago, Wong played an agoraphobic radiologist in 2014’s short-lived network medical drama ‘Black Box’. The comedian wasn’t yet known for her Netflix special ‘Baby Cobra’ — in which she stood onstage, more than seven months pregnant, telling crass jokes in a now-iconic H & M dress — or for her writing on the sitcom ‘Fresh Off the Boat’. Before all that, she was Dr. Lina Lark, who, in one particular scene, refuses to exit the hospital.
The role called for Wong to cry. She remembers concentrating hard on the task at hand, willing her tear ducts to perform.
“And it shows,” Wong says. She tries not to work that way anymore. Instead, she lets go. She focuses only on “being in the scene,” allowing emotions to wash over her as it unfolds.
This method requires Wong to place a great deal of trust in her collaborators — such as Lee, who says Wong took a “leap of faith” working with him on a series more dramatic than any of his previous work. He originally envisioned the actor opposite Yeun to be a White man, like the driver he encountered in real life, but came to realise during an unrelated conversation with Wong that she has a knack for exposing “harsher truths about life in such a funny way.” The actress cuts to her character’s core with this biting sense of humour.
In ‘Beef’, Amy embarks on her own journey of learning to let go. She unravels as she loses her grip on an immaculately curated life, feelings slamming into her like a car wreck. There’s the rage, of course, which leads Amy to flood the Yelp page for Danny’s contracting business with negative reviews. But her judgment is also clouded by loneliness, which prompts her to catfish Danny’s brother, Paul (Young Mazino).
Amy doesn’t know why she isn’t happier. Maybe it’s that her marriage to eternal optimist George (Joseph Lee), the coddled son of a successful artist, doesn’t fulfil her. She tires of maintaining a cheery, go-with-the-flow facade. The uneasiness seems to permeate all aspects of Amy’s life, down to the decor in her newly renovated Calabasas home.
Wong makes note of the wooden slats in Amy’s kitchen area, these floor-to-ceiling strips of wood meant to contribute a Zen energy to a living space. The actress has them in her own home; they’re calming. But production designer Grace Yun added distance between the slats in Amy’s house, such that they resemble a cage.
“’This is supposed to be nice,’” Wong recalls thinking on set, “’but I feel a little trapped.’”
Though both the main characters in “Beef” try to run from their lives, Danny would insist that he is making his way toward a better future. Burdened by the failure of his parents’ business, Danny has taken on the responsibility of financially supporting his family, including Paul. The brothers live together in a rundown apartment, which Danny dreams of abandoning for his own property. Yeun, who has made a career of playing resilient characters, including in television’s “The Walking Dead” and in films such as “Minari” and “Nope,” refers to his character in “Beef” as “a survivor.”
“He has a lot of things he feels like he has to uphold and become,” Yeun says. “He’s always trying to get away from himself in that way, trying to become something.”
Much of Danny’s malice toward Amy is rooted in the belief that someone so wealthy couldn’t possibly understand his hardship. After the destroyed Yelp page, he escalates the feud, invading Amy’s personal life by befriending her unaware husband. In most of Danny’s life, the power dynamic rarely favours him, and he relishes the feeling of control.
Pettiness even plays a part in Danny’s spiritual journey, which takes him to the Korean church attended by his former girlfriend and her husband. Danny consistently one-ups the guy, joining the church basketball team and singing during devotion. As with Wong, Yeun’s background in comedy helps him master tricky tones; a church performance of 'Drive', by the rock band Incubus, somehow comes off both uplifting and menacing.
Yeun became attached to “Beef” early on and helped Lee shape his character. Lee points out that he and Yeun both grew up in the Korean church and, after leaving, found themselves searching for meaning. They share a fascination with what motivates people to behave as they do — and not just “base human emotions like rage, sadness and anger,” Lee says, “but deeper, to [the question of] what is the pain and suffering at the root of our existence?”
Yeun adds that, for Danny and Amy, “rage comes out as a by-product of what feels more like jealousy and envy.”
They “want the freedom of each other’s lives, whether it’s monetary or circumstantial,” he says. “There’s a prison they’re both living in. ... I think they’re bound in that way.”