‘Beef’ turns an ugly road-rage conflict into great entertainment

In Netflix series, Steven Yeun and Ali Wong play angry strangers who let their traffic dispute escalate into war.

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Danny (Steven Yeun, left) is driving a truck that nearly collides with the Mercedes driven by Amy (Ali Wong), setting off a war of mutual destruction in “Beef.”

Netflix

If you’ve been driving for more than just a minute in this pavement-covered world of ours, it’s likely you’ve had a startling, infuriating, frustrating encounter with another motorist. Horns are honked, expletives fly, a gesture or two might be made — but hopefully, that’s as far as it goes. You gather yourself together, you take a deep breath, you shake your head, and you get on with your day, your week, your life.

Such a shame Danny and Amy didn’t take that route, instead of escalating things to the point where Danny is following Amy on a high-speed chase while Amy flips him the bird and throws garbage at him, and they tear through a flower bed, and they nearly collide … and then things REALLY spiral out of control, to the point where lives are permanently altered and property is damaged and blood is spilled and they’re both wondering: How did we get here! How in God’s name did we get here.

This is the setup for the 10-part Netflix limited series “Beef,” which plays like “Falling Down” meets “Changing Lanes” with a little bit of “White Lotus” for good measure, but stands on its own as a bold, darkly funny, emotionally bruising, provocative and wicked-smart social satire — the best series I’ve seen this year. Show creator Lee Sung Jin (who also wrote or co-wrote many of the sharp scripts) has delivered a scorched-earth instant classic, with Emmy-worthy performances by lead actors Ali Wong and Steven Yeun, and outstanding work from an ensemble including Young Mazino, David Choe, Joseph Lee, Patti Yasutake and Maria Bello. Every episode contains at least one slick twist and some telling revelations, as Danny and Amy keep making things much worse—even when they’re trying to make things better. They’re two human car wrecks bound together by a near actual wreck, and as much as we’re appalled by their actions, we can’t help but feel empathy as they spiral out of control.

‘Beef’

Untitled

A 10-episode series available Friday on Netflix

Each episode of “Beef” is titled after a quote from a heavy thinker, e.g., “I Am Inhabited by a Cry” (Sylvia Plath), “The Drama of Original Choice” (Simone de Beauvoir), “I am a Cage” (funnyman Franz Kafka), and closes with a plaintive pop ballad from the 1990s or 2000s, such as “Drive” by Incubus, “Self Esteem” by The Offspring and “The Reason” by Hoobastank. In the opening episode, called “The Birds Don’t Sing, They Screech in Pain,” Yeun’s Danny has a maddening experience at a big-box store called Forsters (no receipt, no returns) and is backing up his battered pickup truck in the parking lot when he nearly hits (or is hit by) a white Mercedes SUV. Cue the aforementioned chase sequence, with Danny screaming, “I’m sick of this s---, every f----ing day! Where the f--- do you think you’re going! Oh my God, you f---ing idiot!” (At this point, Danny assumes the driver is male and is spoiling for a physical fight.)

Cut to the inside of the Mercedes, and there’s Wong’s Amy, her face frozen in a weirdly satisfied expression after besting Danny and screeching away. What she doesn’t realize is that Danny has memorized her license plate, and it won’t be long before they learn each other’s identities and engage in a battle that goes far beyond threatening texts and nasty phone calls.

We get to know Danny and Amy, in their very different lives. Danny is a struggling contractor who shares a cramped apartment in Los Angeles with his slacker younger brother Paul (Mazino), who is more interested in playing video games, Tinder hookups and dabbling in bitcoin than joining his brother’s business. Amy lives in a spacious, coldly beautiful home in Calabasas with her supportive husband George (Joseph Lee) and their tightly wound daughter June (Remy Holt).

She owns and operates a chic plant boutique called Kōyō Haus, and after years of micromanaging, establishing her brand, working exhausting hours, etc., etc., she’s about to score a huge jackpot in the form of an acquisition by the Forsters chain (remember Danny’s no-receipt encounter there?), which is headed by Maria Bello’s Jordan Forster, a New Age-y billionaire with an insufferably smug demeanor. (Jordan, to Amy: “You have this serene, Zen Buddhist thing going on.” She couldn’t be more off.)

We’re introduced to a myriad of fascinating characters, with a scene-stealing David Choe as Danny’s recently paroled, hilariously affectionate but also dangerous cousin, Isaac; a wonderful Patti Yasutake as George’s controlling mother, Fumi, and Ashley Park as Jordan’s sister-in-law, a schemer who befriends Amy, and Andrew Santino and Rekstizzy as a couple of bumbling criminals straight out of a Coen brothers movie. They’re all eventually drawn into the web created by Danny and Amy, who are so consumed with trying to one-up each other, with trying to ruin each other’s lives, that they don’t see how very similar they are.

The heavy irony is that when Danny and Amy are facing off with one another, it’s the only time when they can let down their respective guards and be brutally honest about themselves. These are two angry, disappointed, depressed people, and it boils down to a question of whether they’ll wind up saving each other or continue drowning together until there’s nothing left of either one.

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