Spoilers for Beef ahead.
It all started with a white SUV. Lee Sung Jin was stopped at an intersection in central LA when the light turned green. Before he hit the gas, the BMW—of course it was a BMW—behind him started honking. It was an everyday, forgettable annoyance, but it sparked an idea that grew into a TV series that, in its first week out, is already generating Emmy buzz.
A hilariously twisted tragedy, Beef follows Amy (Ali Wong) and Danny (Steven Yeun), two strangers whose lives are upended when a fateful encounter in a hardware store parking lot spirals into something much bigger. The world Lee created simmers with delicious tension served up by the two stars. As each of their characters slowly unravel, the resentments, generational trauma, and rage that they’ve pushed down inside comes bursting out. The question driving the series: Just how far will two broken people go to feel seen?
Each episode ramps up the stakes, culminating in a violent, unforgettable finale. Still, the show never indicts either of its leads, instead inviting its viewers to try and sympathize with their increasingly desperate, missguided attempts at connection.
The creator and showrunner spoke to GQ about Beef’s explosive finale, the burden of being alive, finding humor in darkness, and more.
You were born in Korea, and then you lived in Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, Iowa, and Texas before attending college in Philadelphia and eventually moving to LA, where you’re now based. Why did you feel that Los Angeles was the right setting for the show?
They say write what you know, right? [Laughs] Well, right before the pandemic, my wife and I were fortunate enough to get our first home out in the Valley. So, as a first-time homeowner does, we were often going out to Home Depot. I was going to the one in West Hills a lot, and I think that it was a very interesting melting pot. You have people coming there from Hidden Hills, where Drake and the Kardashians live, but then you have Chatsworth, Reseda, Canoga Park all right next door. Just looking at the cars, it’s Mercedes Benz SUVs, but then the Tacoma trucks of the people who work for the people driving the Benzes. It just felt like a location that was rife with tension. I was observing that in my day to day and thought I’d write about it.
Danny and Amy are two complete strangers whose lives become intertwined over the course of the year in which the first season takes place. Why did you choose a road rage incident as the incident that sets all this off?
It’s a pretty universal entry point. I think all of us at one point or another in our lives, have had some version of road rage. Also, I think, in the modern era, our cars are these very isolating, literal bubbles that we go around in for so much of our lives. The show itself thematically touches on our separation a lot, so it felt very appropriate to kind of use these like vehicular bubbles as a starting point.
So much of the show is about digging into these feelings of rage and revenge that everyone feels but usually manages to keep in check. Did writing these unhinged characters teach you anything about yourself?
I discovered that there’s a lot of each character in me. Not in the extremes that the show displays, but I think when you really put yourself in someone else’s shoes, or even if you stay in your own shoes and imagine the same upbringing, the same life events happening to you, it’s hard not to empathize with what someone else is going through. I think, largely, we’re very similar. The most cathartic thing for me was less about rage, and more about the kind of existential, empty feeling that the show talks about. For me, it’s always been there, and I know it’s never gonna go away. It’s just a matter of figuring out the degree to which it’s affecting my life. The joy of working on Beef is that I got to make it with some of my best friends, people I love and trust. I think in making the show, the main takeaway was the burden of being alive [laughs]. The only way we can carry that is with other people, you really can’t do it alone.
There are so many sad, even dark, moments in the show that maybe shouldn’t be laugh-out-loud funny (Danny hastily trying to put out several hibachi grills when he decides he doesn’t want to kill himself, for example). Did you always imagine the show would have this twisted sense of humor?
I think that’s just me. All of my favorite movies and TV shows are of a similar tone. Paul Thomas Anderson, Bong Joon Ho, the Coen Brothers, Ari Aster—they’ve all had very harsh looks at life that are digestible because they’re done in such an interesting and humorous way. I was just hoping to achieve something remotely like that. Much like the Carl Jung quote from the finale, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” The show itself, and the tone of it, has to reflect that.
That approach really comes to a head in the penultimate episode. I mean, there’s a whole botched extortion plot playing out between police gunfire, and you can’t help but flash to the first episode and think, “Wow. We started with two strangers, and now we’re here.”
Yeah, exactly. Thank you for calling that out, because it was very much by design. I’ve been reading some online reactions of certain people feeling like the show kind of went off the rails, and they’re right. The show very clearly does go off the rails, because I think so many times in life, where you start and where you end up, you’re just like, how the hell did I get here? As Danny says in the finale, “You’re born, you make choices, and suddenly you’re here.” We really wanted to highlight that in the penultimate episode by just having every possible thing going wrong, just letting everything hit the fan. Part of that too, is—and I don’t know if everyone is laughing at it—but there’s a bit of humor in it. Like if you take a couple of steps back and look at the scene, there’s someone running around in a Dick Cheney mask while a panic room door is cutting this billionaire in half. It’s all very ridiculous, but that’s true of life.
Even with all this chaos going on in that episode, the interactions between Amy and Naomi [Ashley Park] were so interesting. They’ve spent the season kind of competing for the favor of Jordan [Maria Bello, playing Naomi’s sister in law, who is the potential buyer of Amy’s business], this rich, white woman, but she’s not really the focus, their dynamic with each other is. What did you want to explore with their relationship?
There are a couple of aspects that drew us to Amy and Naomi’s dynamic. One being that I think for everyone, when you’re feeling alone and isolated like Amy, you’re pretty desperate for friends. You’re desperate for moments of connection. And in episode two, when they’re sitting down, it almost feels like Amy might have a friend. But just one little thing—her comment about “it must be so nice to stay at home all day with your [daughter]”—and suddenly that connection is blown up. Ego and insecurity enters the picture, and Naomi starts to get very defensive. That’s sort of the seed for which their very complicated relationship grows into the jealousy on Naomi’s side, and ultimately leads to the confrontation in episode six. And so we were just trying to mine kind of how hard it is for all of us to connect. There’s always some misinterpretation, some miscommunication that derails the whole dynamic. Then I think also, the Amy-Naomi dynamic, it’s somewhat intentional that they’re both Asian-American. That’s happened to me in real life, too. I think a lot of us think, “Oh hey, we’re alike, we should get along. We’re a community.” And that’s a very surface level approach to it. The truth is, humans are humans and ego is ego, and race is not not something that can just blindly fix that.
It says a lot that even when he has Amy, Naomi, and Jordan tied up, Isaac [David Choe] still looks at Amy and Naomi and says, “You know you’re Asian, right?”
Exactly. Jordan has just gone off about Zugzwang in chess, and he’s just like, “What the fuck? Why are you guys hanging out with her?” Yeah, you’re right, I didn’t even think about that. He’s looking at them like, “What are you doing? We’re supposed to be all on the same team here.”
When it comes to the show’s ending, how early on did you know where Danny and Amy would end up?
Very early. We were preparing the pitch to take out to buyers. I do these very long PowerPoint presentations that are full of Photoshop storyboards and whatnot. We were on a zoom, Steven Ali, myself, Ravi Nandan, and Alli Reich from A24, and we’re trying to figure out the end of the pitch. I had a bunch of ideas, none of them really resonating with people. We all knew that we wanted this feeling of coming home for these two people, the feeling of being seen. And Ali Wong actually pitched, what if one of them crawls into the hospital bed? Everyone was like, “Oh, that’s great.” It’s very minimalist, but says a lot. So then I photoshopped a slide with some stills from Lost in Translation, In the Mood for Love, and the Upstream Color poster. That sort of set the mood for that final beat in terms of the pitch, and then I used that as inspiration. Then with our DP, Larkin Seiple, our production designer, Grace Yun, and our producing director, Jake Schreier, I think in execution, we discovered the top shot, and these flourishes of surrealism, and color bursts to help capture that initial mood that we all landed on.
There are hints of that surrealism throughout the show, but it really ramps up in the last few episodes. Why did you want to do that as the real-life stakes got higher?
I’m very curious what the viewers think, because I feel like sometimes when creators say the reason, it’s pretty underwhelming [laughs]. These are two people who are so stuck in their status quo when we meet them, and by the time the show is ending, we’re finally breaking them out of their trap. It’s a very subjective show, so the feeling of breaking out of your routine or almost awakening—when you go through that in your real life, it does feel pretty otherworldly. It feels like there’s something greater going on. It feels surreal. Capturing that was important for us, but I probably don’t want to say too much more than that just because I think part of the fun of the surrealism is that, depending on where they’re at, the people viewing it will attach different meaning to it.
Do you think we’ll get to see more of Danny and Amy’s story in the future?
We initially pitched this idea around town as a limited anthology, so that was always our design. That’s why the story is pretty close ended. So if it doesn’t happen, then I’m pretty content because we always wanted the story to end the way it did. But at the same time, if things change and there’s some great groundswell from people demanding more Danny and Amy from Netflix, I’m open to that as well. I have lots of ideas, and I love these characters deeply. So yeah, I’m really kind of leaving it up to all the viewers.
Your next project is a pretty big departure from Beef, but Marvel’s Thunderbolts will be kind of a reunion, right? You’ll be working with Steven and a few others from the *__Beef __*team.
Yeah, I’ve been working on it for a couple of months now. It’s very different. One, it’s not my project, it’s Jake [Schreier’s], so I’m just here to kind of help execute his vision. But it’s lovely to be working with Jake again, and Grace, and Harry [Yoon], our editor. It feels like Beef never ended. We’re on the same text threads sending each other ideas and whatnot. So that’s been really nice, because I feel like once you find people you love and trust, why not keep working together?