LOS ANGELES — In the upcoming Netflix series “Beef,” Steven Yeun plays Danny Cho, a struggling handyman in Los Angeles who becomes embroiled in a road rage incident with Amy Lau, a wealthy entrepreneur played by Ali Wong. Over 10 episodes, their simmering hatred fuels an escalating series of poor decisions, setting off a bizarre chain of retribution including but not limited to robbery, vandalism, catfishing and bad Yelp reviews.
The show was created by the writer Lee Sung Jin (“Dave,” “Two Broke Girls”), who first worked with Yeun and Wong on the animated series “Tuca & Bertie.” (Yeun and Wong played a robin and a song thrush who are lovers.) Around the same time, Lee was involved in a road rage confrontation in Los Angeles that would inspire his new series.
“Beef” is Lee’s first outing as a series creator and showrunner. It also features Yeun’s first regular role on live-action TV since his character, Glenn, was killed off “The Walking Dead” in 2016. Glenn’s gruesome murder sparked viewer outrage but things worked out great for Yeun, who has since appeared in acclaimed films like “Minari,” which brought him an Academy Award nomination for best actor, and “Burning.”
Lee and Yeun are set to work together again on Marvel’s forthcoming “Thunderbolts” movie, their first forays into the MCU: Lee as a writer, Yeun in a yet-to-be-revealed role.
On an afternoon in March, Yeun and Lee got together at the Apple Pan, a beloved hole-in-the-wall burger joint on L.A.’s west side. Over hickory burgers, fries and slices of pie, they talked about how they met, the inspiration for “Beef” and their Korean church connections. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
LEE SUNG JIN I was getting on the 10. The light turned green and I didn’t go right away, and a white BMW X3 starts honking like crazy, pulls up next to me and [the driver] says a bunch of [expletive] at me. I was like, That’s not OK — I’m going to follow him home. In reality, I wasn’t actually going to follow him; I’m not that courageous. But back then I lived in Santa Monica — when we both got off at Fourth Street, I’m just commuting home, but I’m sure he was like, Oh my God, this guy is following me.
I thought there was something interesting there, how we’re all locked in our subjective world views, and we go around projecting a lot on the other person and not really seeing things for what they are.
Implicit in every viral road rage video is the same question: What is wrong with these people? BEEF, a wild black comedy from first-time creator Lee Sung Jin that premieres April 6 on Netflix, delves deep into the sources and fallout of two L.A. motorists’ fury. Danny Cho (Steven Yeun) is a struggling contractor wracked with guilt over his immigrant parents’ involuntary return to Korea. Amy Lau (Ali Wong) longs to sell her thriving houseplant business and stay home with her husband George (Joseph Lee) and young daughter June (Remy Holt). Their parking-lot showdown leads to a ridiculous chase through suburbia—and then months of ever-escalating attempts to ruin each other’s lives.
At first, this simple yet amusing premise seems better suited to a 90-minute feature than a 10-episode Netflix series. But it soon becomes apparent that Lee is doing more than just a live-action Looney Tunes bit. In between all the vicious pranks, we get insights into both characters’ unhappiness. Desperate to maintain the serene front that’s vital to her brand’s identity, Amy quietly seethes over a meddling mother-in-law (Patti Yasutake), the manipulations of a billionaire (Maria Bello) who’s flirting with acquiring the business, and George’s insistence on following in his artist father’s footsteps despite his obvious lack of talent. Danny is in debt to a potentially violent cousin (played with wildcard intensity by the artist David Choe) and feels responsible for his lazy, cryptocurrency-obsessed younger brother Paul (Young Mazino). “That’s what’s wrong with the world today: they want you to feel like you have no control,” he rants.
As it progresses, the show fleshes out not just its leads, but also their families, who face stressors and disappointments of their own. The irony is that for all their atrocious behavior, Danny, Amy, and most of the people around them are not, at their core, evil. Each is capable of kindness. But by failing to extend empathy to other characters in pain—and to acknowledge the deep-seated origins of their anger—everyone ends up contributing to a rapidly accelerating crisis.
One of several upcoming TV projects from A24, the studio behind Best Picture winners Everything Everywhere All at Once and Moonlight, Beef is the kind of series—a smart, sophisticated comedy with an ideal cast, artful direction, polished production design—that Netflix has mostly stopped making. It’s also the rare show that, like Everything, honors the differences in class, ethnicity, and personality that make each of its mostly Asian-American characters unique, rather than flattening them into some idealized exercise in “positive representation.” It’s a remarkably confident debut from Dave and Undone vet Lee, and one that keeps upping its ante until the bitter, big-hearted end.