Ali Wong and Steven Yeun’s road rage saga isn’t about what it says it is at all.
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Ali Wong is seething. She’s furious. No one does mad better than Ali Wong, and she’s completely going for it. She’s flipping the bird. She’s yelling, then grinning maniacally, her eyes lighting up as the rage takes control. She’s pointing a gun at her phone and screaming into the digital abyss. “I’m going to find you and I’m going to take what little you have,” she seethes. In the background, Billy Corgan gently coos the lyrics to The Smashing Pumpkins’ seminal grunge anthem ‘Today’.
Wong’s foil is Steven Yeun, The Walking Dead’s surly standout. Here, he’s playing against type as a construction worker for hire who runs scams on the side. He has money problems, family issues, his own burning internal angst. He inhales Burger King – four chicken sandwiches at once – like it’s his last meal, and dreams of the day he has enough money to build a house for his parents. Then he runs into Wong, and his plans quickly change. Now, he’s got ambitions that are a little more… violent.
All this is in the ridiculously good trailer for Beef, the latest Netflix hit racking up views and hitting top 10 lists around the world. It’s compelling. It’s funny. It’s electric. It uses one of the best songs from the 90s – that Jimmy Chamberlain drum fill maps exactly to Ali Wong’s crazed facial expressions – to perfection. It’s a work of art. Someone put time into this. It shows. I was so sold when I saw it I watched it twice. As someone who sits in Auckland traffic every day, give me a road rage revenge saga and I will inhale it.
I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the show is nothing like its trailer.
Instead, Beef is an ode to middle-aged boredom. It’s about those in-between stages when work, kids and mortgage payments combine into the daily grind. For Amy (Wong) and Danny (Yeun), all this boredom comes to a head in a convenience store parking lot. There’s a minor infraction. A finger is raised. A chase ensues. They fight. They plot revenge. Someone’s bathroom rug gets pissed on. The 90s alt-rock vibe continues: think Bush, Incubus, Tori Amos and bung old Hoobastank. The credits – a slab of weird art, a dicey quote and those Nolan horns – throw you off-kilter from the get go.
For a while, it’s a good time. For Beef’s first few episodes, any of the scenes involving Wong and Yeun are as explosive as the trailer promises. The pair have so much chemistry that producers don’t seem to know what to do with it all. So around episode four, they start to pad. Things get stretched. What could have been a great movie, or a terrific six-part series, gets pulled to last 10 episodes. But there isn’t 10 episodes worth of story here. It kills all the goodwill, and momentum, built up over those first few episodes.
There’s a phrase to describe this: Netflix bloat. In the streaming era, it happens a lot. You can always tell when a show starts bloating. Characters you’ve never met before show up. There are sudden plot twists and turns that don’t make sense. Things slow down. The story gets boring. Things start to sag. Characters have random affairs. In video game terms, there are side quests. Everything feels like it could be pulled from a Days of Our Lives script. Then, at the end, things get good again. There’s a great show in there, if they’d just cut all the fat out.
Just like it did in the final season of Ozark, or throughout Jessica Jones, that god-awful second season of Making a Murderer and the insanely long fourth season of Stranger Things, all of that happens in Beef. Suddenly, the guy from Dave shows up. David Choe’s character Isaac gets far more screen time than he deserves. A meaningless church scam plays out for several episodes. Netflix wants people to stay watching, to keep bingeing, to watch four, five or six episodes in a row, so content creators are forced to stick to strict rules. Seasons must be as long as possible. No one seems to care how that might impact the story.
Beef’s saving grace is Ali Wong. The stand-up comedian (remember how she savaged her husband in her second Netflix stand-up special Hard Knock Wife, then the pair split? Awks…) is a captivating performer. She’s just so watchable here, owning every single scene she’s in. She has so many good lines – my favourite is when her husband tells her he had an “emotional entanglement” with her assistant and she replies: “What, do you work for Goop now?” – it makes it worth eating Beef up to the bitter end. It might be bloated, but there’s a good show to be found in there somewhere.