Steven Yeun and Ali Wong on the cover of emmy
Steven Yeun and Ali Wong
Steven Yeun and Ali Wong
To Hatch A BEEF
For writer Lee Sung Jin, one extended road-rage experience sparked a genre-defying exploration of class warfare and other big themes in suburban Los Angeles. Ali Wong and Steven Yeun star as opposites who both attract and repel as their conflict spirals out of control.
"The birds don't sing, they screech in pain."
That was Werner Herzog back in 1981, long before he became a meme and everyone's favorite nihilist. Give the guy credit: his words resonate. Over four decades later, that quote has resurfaced like a message in a bottle. There it is, slapped on the title card that introduces episode one of BEEF, a passion project from creator-executive producer-showrunner-writer Lee Sung Jin (Dave, Silicon Valley) premiering April 6 on Netflix.
Character-driven, gripping and funny, with the requisite dose of kink (there's a masturbation scene involving a Glock), BEEF is just what you'd expect from A24's television division. Like many of the studio's titles, the plot is unpredictable and defies genre. Netflix labels it a "dark comedy" but BEEF also veers into domestic drama, revenge thriller and social satire territory.
This isn't a slow burn or a show that requires "a few episodes to get good." Two minutes. That's how long it takes for Amy and Danny's orbits to collide, and for Sonny (as Lee Sung Jin is known) to set the hook. It's tempting to devour the series whole. Suddenly all that matters is this suburban mirage and the people trapped in it.
Watch our Under the Cover video with Ali Wong and Steven Yeun
Although decidedly bingeable, this is no guilty pleasure. Between all the laughs and adrenaline spikes, real gravitas is mined. Sonny explores big themes: marriage, family, success, religion, loneliness. Think infidelity, generational conflict, workplace tension and the existential dread that plagues us all. Also think a torrent of pain, enough to float a boat.
The setting is the San Fernando Valley, specifically fancy Calabasas, the gated land of Kardashians, NBA stars and fixer Ray Donovan; and Reseda, the place where Tom Petty sang about a house "with a freeway runnin' through the yard" and Mark Wahlberg became Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights. The two birds trapped in this gilded and impeccably landscaped cage are Ali Wong (Baby Cobra, Always Be My Maybe) and Steven Yeun (Minari, The Walking Dead). Their screeching is constant, the volume rising and falling, but mostly rising. That's the pain being vented. Sometimes it's low-grade and manageable. Frequently, though, it's so intense and profuse that it seeps through their pores like a toxin.
Road rage will do that to people. This is the so-called "beef" of the title. It starts when a car collision between two strangers is barely averted. A horn blares. Insults are hurled. They rev their engines and a high-speed chase is underway.
More than road rage, this is class warfare. Amy Lau (Wong) is behind the wheel of a shiny Mercedes. A successful entrepreneur, she lives in a shelter-porn house, dines on molecular cuisine and is on the verge of closing a deal that will make her Gulfstream-rich. Her nemesis in the battered pickup is Danny Cho (Yeun), a handyman with contractor aspirations and suicidal tendencies. When he isn't fixing toilets, he's brooding in a seedy apartment or checking his dwindling Bitcoin stash between Burger King runs.
Amy gives Danny the slip, but that's not the end of the beef. They don't realize it yet, but their lives are about to unravel in tandem. The car chase will fester and spawn a long-running feud, triggering a cycle of escalating retribution. Even family members won't be spared. Brokering a truce is futile. These two are like magnets spinning in space, each one repelling and attracting the other. Watching them suffer is oddly cathartic. It's also poignant, thought-provoking, absurd and remarkably profound.
Demanding roles take a toll on actors. The Emmy-nominated Wong and Oscar-nominated Yeun — who also serve as executive producers — insist it's not a coincidence they both broke out in severe rashes right after the series wrapped. It was as if after willing themselves to tolerate the amped-up tension and anxiety of this marathon grudge match, their bodies finally gave out. "I'm not a very method-y actor, but playing this role really had an effect on me," Wong says. "It was intense, unlike anything I had ever done before. I still haven't processed all of it." Breaking character off set didn't help Yeun either. "Danny is very tightly wound," he says. "I was exhausted when I came home every day. I thank my wife and family for putting up with me on a daily basis for four months."
Yeun says all the itching and hydrocortisone cream were well worth it. "People will laugh at the characters because all of us share the same pain. That's the beauty of this show: just being able to laugh at ourselves. Sometimes BEEF is so cringe, sometimes it feels so pathetic and sad, and sometimes it feels so beautiful in its tragedy. My hope is that the audience connects to the story's universality."
Every project has an origin story. This one was birthed at a traffic light on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles. It happened more than two years ago, but Sonny remembers the details like the credits on his IMDb page. He had just knocked off work and was headed home. Stopped at a light, he glanced down at his phone. He was still studying the traffic on Waze when the light turned green. That's when the driver behind him laid on the horn. Sonny checked his rearview mirror: BMW X3. Tires squealing, the driver pulled up next to Sonny, spewed a stream of obscenities and sped off. Paralyzed between fight or flight, Sonny let several seconds pass. Then he punched the gas, a reaction more visceral than strategic. "I had no plan, other than to follow the guy home. It just irked me." If he has remorse, it doesn't register. "Not my proudest moment, but I wanted him to feel a bit of fear, and let him know it's not okay to do this."
This led to the kind of car chase that happens when film permits and police barricades aren't involved, more Driving Miss Daisy than Fast & Furious. "I followed him down the 10 into Santa Monica. That's like an hour drive — it's impossible to maintain your rage for that long." Having come this far, though, he was reluctant to concede the fight. Then everything changed: the driver took an exit ramp, stopped in the middle of the street and called the police. To conceal his identity (and the panic in his eyes), Sonny quickly donned sunglasses. Then came the payoff: "I lowered the window, flashed him the I'm-looking-at-you hand gesture, which I'd never done in my life, and zoomed off." He says the rush was exhilarating: "I never felt more alive. I talked about this nonstop for the next month."
When he got home, he scribbled down three words: "road rage show." That intriguing premise secured a lunch meeting with producer and longtime A24 partner Ravi Nandan (Euphoria, Mo). Nandan loved the idea of using a road-rage encounter as a jumping-off point for a dramedy series.
Sonny immediately went into PowerPoint mode. His elaborate laptop pitches are famous around town. He once described them as "almost like performance art." More than writing scripts, constructing and honing these proof-of-concept models is the part of the creative process he enjoys most. "If I could create PowerPoints for a living, I'd be very happy," he told a stunned podcast host in 2019. "I weirdly love it."
Like all his presentations, this one was painstakingly crafted, emotionally engaging and left little to the imagination. "I like to give the buyers as much information as possible," he says. In the digital world, that's a long slog. "I think it would be faster just to write the scripts," one TV producer says. "Sonny's PowerPoints take a long time to put together. Everything is very layered and very rich."
This one was particularly labor intensive, requiring countless hours just to churn through all the Google image searches. That included pulling frames from dozens of Wong and Yeun clips to ensure the eyelines matched perfectly, and scouring YouTube for a chase scene with the appropriate vibe (Drive). Sonny then melded all those elements — along with V.O. narration, title cards, lots of PhotoShop magic and some catchy needle drops (pop hits from the late '90s to early aughts captured the mood) — to animate and bring his three-word elevator pitch to life.
The result was impressive: ten thirty-minute BEEF episodes compressed into a forty-minute multimedia slideshow, every key scene storyboarded, every character arc plotted. Here was the elusive unicorn, a TV series as unique as it was entertaining, featuring a brilliant creator with a distinctive voice who tapped into strong emotions and universal themes. Having the industry cachet of A24 didn't hurt either.
Meetings were scheduled and Sonny made the rounds. Amazon fielded the first pitch in March 2021. Someone who was in that room described how the BEEF PowerPoint was received: "It was really emotional. People were teary eyed. They felt like they had gone on this deep journey with Sonny."
Every cable network and streamer was on board. This was planetary alignment: seven pitches, seven offers. In the end, Netflix's aggressive and early bid won the day.
Early in his career, buyers would ask Sonny to name his favorite comedy. He always replied, Caddyshack. Not because it was his favorite comedy but because he thought that's what guys who bankroll comedy shows wanted to hear. Pose the same question today and he tells the truth: The Sopranos. That nugget reveals more about Sonny's narrative sensibility than any press release or wiki page ever will. If he has a creative North Star, that hit HBO crime series is it. The BEEF writers' room knows all about this. On day one, Sonny handed each writer a copy of The Sopranos Sessions, Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall's book of essays and interviews with Sopranos creator David Chase. It's the Rosetta Stone that hardcore fans and pop-culture historians use to deconstruct and analyze the series.
But the strands of DNA that bind BEEF together aren't limited to Tony's family and his Jersey Turnpike crew. Here's the email Sonny sent to Grace Yun (Hereditary, First Reformed), the meticulous production designer he entrusted with creating the binary world of Southern California wealth and striving he wanted to see onscreen:
"This might sound ridiculous, but the 'holy grail formula' I've been telling our writers is: 35% Sopranos/Paul Thomas Anderson flawed character comedy+ 35% Netflix bingeability/White Lotus water cooler moments + 30% Ingmar Bergman/Hirokazu Koreeda warm melancholic pathos."
That's some tough math, but Yun cracked the equation. Consider the balustrade bars, a recurring leitmotif in the postmodern box Amy calls home. The visual subtext is subtle but powerful: this isn't just a house — it's a cage. Yun's design specified the balustrade panels be spaced like prison bars. Just to make sure, before shooting started, she got down on her knees with a ruler and measured the gap between each panel.
"Grace is smarter than all of us," says executive producer Jake Schreier (Robot & Frank, Paper Towns), who directed six of BEEF's ten episodes. "She put some things into the production that I don't even understand. She's thinking of design on an incredibly deep character level."
Sonny is also obsessed with design. He refuses to put a license plate on his car's front bumper because it would clash with his aesthetic vision. A similar God-is-in-the-details approach can be found in the BEEF costumes that Emmy winner Helen Huang (The Shrink Next Door, Station Eleven) created. Amy's wardrobe, for instance, showcases a neutral color palette with a heavy emphasis on white, cream and tan clothing. That visual irony played well on set. "Sonny and Helen thought it was hilarious that Amy's clothes had calm colors that were so soothing," Wong says, "but beneath that calm facade, she had all these insane thoughts [laughs]. Her wardrobe really helped inform my character."
Wong describes her reaction after screening Yeun's performance as, "Blown away. You've never seen a character like Danny Cho on TV before. This is such an interesting and complex Asian-American male character — and he's funny," she says. Coming from someone who headlines at the Comedy Store and hangs out with Chris Rock, that's no small compliment.
Yeun acknowledges that being a Second City Touring Company alum made him a better actor: "In comedy, you have to explore things that are deeply shameful to get to some semblance of truth. If your mind is trained to do that, maybe it's not so difficult to bare your soul when acting in a dramatic role." Proving once again that dying really is easy, comedy is hard.
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This article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No. 02.