I was filtering out from a side road into a major thoroughfare a few weeks ago. Checked my blindspot to see if I was clear and out I went but a sickening lingering honk reverberated in the air. A van had changed lane at that moment and merged into the one I was turning into. Damn van then switched back to his lane and this was that moment that happens to any driver. A sense of self-entitled justice engulfed me and I presumed a higher-than-thou attitude permeated the other driver too. My foot was on the accelerator because I knew what he was about to do. It almost felt like we have switched bodies - I knew he was going to floor it to overtake me. At that precise moment I decided not to play the game and just eased off. I knew exactly what he was going to do after he overtook me with vengeance; he was going to brake check me. I have slowed down much so I was prepared for that childish but dangerous move. I didn’t honk him because that would let him know he had won. Soon he got bored and drove off. Sometimes I wondered what could have happened if I had floored it and stopped him from overtaking me. Netflix’s 10-episode Beef is about that moment you decide you have had enough and no Tom, Dick, Harry or Sally is going to get the better of you on the roads.
This is a show about bad decisions and allowing pettiness to get the better of us. It is a simple premise but the execution is a slab of juicy medium rare steak cooked to sizzling perfection. Netflix seldom gets it right with its shows - terminating shows before they have a chance or prolonging shows long past their sell-by date. Sometimes the new shows are just a complete miss, a waste of money and your time. Beef is the rare one that got it right.
How can a simple premise of a road rage incident lead to something memorable other than a game of oneupmanship? Creator-writer Lee Sung Jin takes the story on a wieldy road to show two worlds on opposite sides of the social ladder and reveals there are more similarities than differences with their lives. Steven Yuen plays a loser who is tired of losing and he totally understands the character. You will pity him but you know he is also asking for it and the underdog in you wants him to win just a bit. I have never seen him in The Walking Dead and the movie that made me notice him in a big way was Lee Chang-dong’s excellent Burning (2018). You know he is a good actor when you see his roles as totally delineated from one another. In Beef, even his body language tells a sad story. Ali Wong matches him all the way to the final frame and this is her best role to date. Their chemistry is blistering.
The plot spirals to unpredictable terrains and vacillates between nail-biting tension to drama to comedy. The laughs are never cheap and the tone is pure perfection. I had no idea which direction it would go from episode to episode and the ending of nobody wins hits the spot. I particularly love how the first 9 episodes end with a song that fits the tone and how it uses the song to merge disparate scenes so seamlessly is a class act. The ones I recognised are Hoobastank’s “The Reason”, Tori Amos’ “Cornflake Girl”, Incubus’ “Drive” and my personal favourite was Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know” which was used so devastatingly. Netflix is probably thinking of a S2 but I don’t think it is necessary. This is as perfect as it gets but I just read that Lee Sung Jin has 2 more seasons mapped out so lets see.
Allow me to narrate another road rage incident to give this review the perfect bookenders. This one happened years ago on a rainy morning. I saw a blue sports car weaving in and out of traffic in my rear view mirror. It finally ended up behind me and the fella gave me a long honk which was basically a “fffffuuuucccccckkkkk yyyyoooouuuu!” No way was I going to give way to him so he had to wait for an opening to overtake me. He even gave me two short bursts of his honk as he passed which we all know was a “f*ck you”. It was okay. I was under no illusion that my Hyundai Matrix was going to outrun a Maserati. I had the last laugh about 5 minutes later. I didn’t see the accident but I drove past it. The front of his blue Maserati was wrapped around a pole and he was standing in the rain talking loudly into his phone. I toyed with the idea of giving him two short bursts but I decided not to and just laughed. That was a good day. I know I am a terrible person sometimes.