Steven Yeun and Ali Wong Dazzle in Netflix’s Riveting Existential Revenge Dramedy

If you’ve ever been to a crowded parking lot, you’ll surely recognize the salacious Netflix incident beef: A truck nearly reverses into an SUV, which honks extravagantly before speeding away. You might even feel the impulse to do what the cars do next, even if you’ve never done it yourself: The truck chases the SUV with the ruthless abandon of an Fast & Furious Racer, spun into oncoming traffic and sped across suburban lawns.

But Amy (Ali Wong) and Danny (Steven Yeun) carry out the duel beef, go further. The encounter sets off an endless cycle of revenge in which they deface each other’s property, sabotage each other’s careers, undermine each other’s families. It’s a hilarious premise at first glance, and the half-hours fly by as wild twists and turns pile up. What’s less-expected, though — and what really remains when the dust settles — is the show’s emphasis on the characters’ flawed humanity and their disarming compassion for their existential despair.

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In the heart of beef lurks a fear so overwhelming that it threatens to completely engulf both protagonists. Towards the end of the 10-episode season, in a therapy session, Amy trembles to the point, “Do you think love can really be unconditional?” she asks. “You know, there has to come a point when we all get out of love’s reach. Like the mistake is so big and then the love has to stop.” By then, we’ve already seen how much of her and Danny’s life rests on the possibility that love might run out — everyone’s afraid of making a mistake or another to let them see that they did it, lest they lose everything they worked for.

For Amy, a self-made businesswoman with a handsome husband (Joseph Lee’s George), an adorable daughter (Remy Holt’s Junie), and a swanky Calabasas home, it means smiling through clenched teeth as she coos about how lucky she is feels. Danny, the owner of a failed contracting company, appears reassuring his roommate/brother Paul (Young Mazino) and their ailing parents in Korea that he’s got everything under control – when in reality all he has to do is beg for loans his freshly released cousin Isaac (David Choe).

The story goes on

Both are on the verge of collapse when they meet, as Yeun and Wong prove in two spectacular performances. Yeun’s Danny carries himself like a clenched fist – constantly anticipating a blow to come and ready to hit back at any moment. Wong, in perhaps her most dramatic role yet, has rarely been better than here – her huge eyes and pursed lips show us every seam and tear in Amy’s tranquil masks. They both spend most of the season pining on each other from afar. But in moments when the two come together, their energy crackles with something more complicated and entertaining than simple attraction or hate.

In their obsessive hatred for one another, we find that each has found that one person they don’t need to stage themselves for — who they don’t have to worry about impressing or disappointing, who they cast their ugliest impulses on. In this light, it seems almost no wonder that their vendetta seems to have breathed new life into them. Danny’s face lights up with delight in the final moments of the premiere directed by Hikari (37 seconds) as he runs away after desecrating their home. We also see what appears to be a smile on her face as she runs after him screaming. They’ve both “found a reason to start fresh,” as Hoobastank sings in one of the many turn-of-the-millennium needledrops that play both roaringly ironic and hauntingly sincere.

Such tonal shifts are the order of the day beef, which she executes so deftly that it almost looks easy. Creator Lee Sung Jin (FXX’s David) grounds each plot development and mood swing in a world that has the texture of real life (sometimes literally, as in the cracks and stains on the walls of the humble church Danny attends) and in characters that appear as complex as real people . Every crazy decision is rooted in motivations that we can understand, even if the characters executing them don’t. Each joke grows out of characters played and written so vividly they seem to jump off the screen. An idle exchange about the nutritional value of Sara Lee sandcake is funny in its frivolity, but it’s also an efficient way to ensure that two supporting characters are introduced mid-season – petty criminals Bobby (Rekstizzy) and Michael (Andrew Santino) – feel She is inhabited just like everyone else.

This power of observation also follows the characters into deeper and sadder places. As the season progresses, we gradually become familiar with the fears and pain that plague so many of those in Danny and Amy’s orbit. There’s the quiet loneliness that emanates from Fumi (Patty Yasutake), Amy’s mother-in-law, as she eats lunch alone. Or the humiliation that contorts Paul’s face as he asks a loved one for help funding his dreams, only to be shot down. Amy and Danny seem to feel unique in their unhappiness, and for good reason – the ever-optimistic George, for example, can only think of talking his wife out of her unhappiness by assuring her, “I know a lot of people who fight depression fight and win.”

beef but knows better. Over time, her generosity to these scared or lost souls becomes her own answer to Amy’s fears about the limits of love. By the end of the season, the anger infecting their leads seems to have touched almost everyone in their circles. We have seen both of them at their worst, howling at their most outrageous moves, gasping for breath at the extent of the physical and emotional destruction they have left in their wake. We’ve seen her and others cross the kinds of boundaries that could threaten the strongest bonds — which could lead to a couple divorcing, a family turning against itself, a believer losing his faith. And we need to realize that none of this has made us feel less for them as human beings. Maybe Amy is right, and love can never be truly unconditional. But his grace, it turns out, goes a hell of a long way.

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