“I’m so sick of smiling,” says Danny Cho (Steven Yeun) in the first episode of Netflix’s “Beef.” You may have noticed that he’s not alone in this. Blame it on the pandemic, the culture, the economy, but people are mad right now, on planes and on trains and — like Danny and his car-crossed antagonist, Amy Lau (Ali Wong) — in automobiles.
“Beef,” a dark comedy about a road-rage incident that careers disastrously off-road, has good timing, but that’s not enough to make a great TV series. What makes this one of the most invigorating, surprising and insightful debuts of the past year is how personally and culturally specific its study of anger is. Every unhappy person in it is unhappy in a different and fascinating way.
Amy and Danny’s high-speed chase through suburban Los Angeles, following a run-in at a big-box-store parking lot, sets the tone for all 10 episodes (which arrive on Thursday). The show floors the accelerator with heedless gusto, racing a course of revenge, subterfuge and terrible decisions.
But what gives “Beef” its interest is its attention to the motivations that brought the pair to that parking lot in the first place.
Danny, a hard-working, hapless contractor saving to build a house for his Korean parents, is trying to return merchandise while fretting over his family and finances. Amy, an entrepreneur who married into art-world money, is trying to sell her small business to the big store’s owner, a deal she hopes will finally allow her to exhale after years of pressure. Each is this close to breaking, and each, after their near fender-bender, ends up being the other’s last straw.
It is easy to see how this could have become a cynical class-war story: His working-class struggle vs. her upscale ennui, his pickup vs. her Mercedes. Instead the creator, Lee Sung Jin (“Dave”), couples a raucous story with a generous spin on the truism that the biggest jerk you meet is fighting battles you know nothing about.
Danny’s problems are more existential and dire: He is the hard-working son who has taken his family on his back, including not only his parents but also his crypto-bro younger brother (Young Mazino) and his ex-convict cousin (a volatile David Choe), who become dangerously entangled in his payback schemes. It’s not just cash that he lacks; he feels an emptiness, which he tries to fill by stress-eating Burger King chicken sandwiches and by joining a rock-gospel church, an intriguing if underdeveloped subplot.
Amy has a cushier living situation, but her stressors are not so different. She smiles through endless microaggressions from Jordan (Maria Bello), her business’s rich white potential buyer, and the intrusions of her wealthy mother-in law (Patti Yasutake). Her husband, George (Joseph Lee), has the sweet but irritating chill of privilege. She keeps a gun (paging Mr. Chekhov) in a home safe, a seeming symbol of Amy herself — a sleek container that keeps something dangerous locked away.
As their battle escalates, Amy and Danny become enmeshed in each other’s lives, and their similarities become clearer. “Beef” develops into something of a love story, except about hate. You’d expect Yeun (“Minari,” “The Walking Dead”) to excel in the show’s drama and the comedian Wong (“Tuca & Bertie”) to nail the humor, but they do the reverse just as well. Wong especially taps the tension behind Amy’s exquisite octagonal glasses, the pressure to provide and be perfect — she’s like Rachel Fleishman with a gun instead of yoga.
That nearly all of the major characters in “Beef” are Asian is both a casual fact of the setting and integral to its themes. These are characters given less social permission for anger in America, in part because of “model minority” stereotypes of docility. (“You have this serene Zen Buddhist thing going on,” Jordan tells Amy.)
But they’re also shaped by their family and upbringing. Amy describes learning to repress her emotions from her father — “Chinese guy from the Midwest, I mean, communication wasn’t his forte” — and her mother, a Vietnamese immigrant who “thought talking about your feelings was the same thing as complaining.”
As philosophy, self-help and “Star Wars” have taught us, anger is a destructive emotion. “Beef” provides ample evidence of this, in the cascade of escalations that builds to a climax so weird and explosive that it defies spoiling. And the personal war brings out the best in neither Amy, who insults Danny as “poor,” nor Danny, who calls Amy “some rich bitch from Calabasas.”
But “Beef” also pushes past easy cant to explore the idea that anger — even petty, stupid anger — can be liberating. At the end of the first episode, Amy and Danny meet face to face, and it does not end well; she winds up chasing him down the street on foot. He, despite having bought himself trouble he can’t afford, wears a wide, childlike smile. She, planning her next countermove, relaxes into a tiny grin.
It’s the first lightness you see on either of their faces. Their dispute will prove to be the worst thing that has happened to either of them, but in the moment, it is also the best. They fight not just out of pride but also out of their seeming belief that their rage might somehow make everything right.
Among the motifs that Lee Sung Jin weaves through “Beef” is hunger. Danny has his Burger King addiction — he eats like it’s his job, straining and puffing — while Amy has a sweet tooth, a legacy of her depressed childhood, that she has passed on to her daughter. Which brings us back to this weird, remarkable show’s title.
Colloquially, “Beef” means “feud.” But this series shows you how anger can also, for some people, be meat. It fills an emptiness, it sustains, it momentarily satisfies — even if, in excess, it’s terrible for your heart.