In the realm of television, 2023 has proven to be an extraordinary year, with many beloved shows making a comeback in better shape than ever. In fact, when reflecting on the history of television in the 21st century, it’s likely that several notable moments from this year will stand out.
However, despite their individual strengths, they were all surpassed by an unexpected challenger. Prior to its appearance on Netflix, Beef was virtually unknown. But once viewed, it captured the attention entirely with its gripping plot and intense action. Packed with entertainment and filled with suspenseful moments, Beef is a prime example of top-notch television.
Beef’s premise didn’t inspire a lot of faith on paper. The story of two strangers who endure a moment of road rage and find themselves Tom and Jerrying their way across southern California, Beef had the potential to be soulless and two-dimensional, more spectacle than story. But the show’s genius was its ability to use that inciting incident to show us exactly who these two people are, and then to relentlessly dig down into why they were like that in the first place. Over its run, Beef became a story of failure and frustration and dark obsession – sometimes abandoning traditional storytelling methods altogether – but without ever forgetting its responsibility to entertain.
Much of the praise for this accomplishment should be attributed to the two main actors. Ali Wong and Steven Yeun are both incredibly gifted performers in their own unique ways – Yeun as the emotional core of The Walking Dead for numerous seasons, and Wong as a successful stand-up comedian. In this film, they found roles that perfectly suited their talents. Yeun’s character, Danny Cho, was vengeful and frustrated, while Wong’s character, Amy Lau, was domineering and condescending, with a cold demeanor disguised by her outward success. On their own, they were unpleasant individuals, but together they brought out the absolute worst in each other. It was a highly volatile and explosive combination.
The plot was skillfully crafted and unpredictable, with a level of creativity that made it feel like you were watching multiple genres simultaneously. This series portrayed random urination with the same gravity as a major burglary, and a plain vase with the same repercussions as an affair outside of marriage.
During a time when Hollywood writers went on strike due to their deteriorating working conditions, Beef serves as a prime example of the importance of traditional writers’ rooms. Its creator, Lee Sung Jin, started his career by writing and producing for shows like Silicon Valley and 2 Broke Girls before finding success with unique and innovative shows like Tuca and Bertie and Undone. His years of experience allowed him to create a show that combines the tightness of a network sitcom with the emotional depth of Undone, while also showcasing a specific perspective that could only come from him.
The last episode of an A24 series often deviates from the main plot to experiment with a more freeform style. This is also true for Beef, but the unconventional approach still serves the characters well. By the end of the mysterious and elliptical finale, Danny and Amy have a deeper understanding of each other, as does the audience. The final moment of the last scene is stunning and leaves room for interpretation. If this is truly the end, it will be remembered as one of the best finales ever.
Whether it should be a definitive end is another question. Taken as a whole, the 10 episodes of Beef felt satisfyingly complete, but the hunger of the modern television industry – not to mention the eagerness of Netflix to capitalise on a hit – means that we should never say never. Back in August, Lee told reporters that he had one “really big idea” that he would be open to exploring and that, while nothing had been commissioned yet, he had stories planned out for three seasons.
If I were in Lee’s position, I would not make any changes. The show Beef is incredibly creative and bold, and the last thing anyone would want is for it to attempt something new and fail. It is rare to achieve perfection like this, so let’s maintain it.