One of the twisted joys of “Beef” is how the show escalates the drama between Amy (Ali Wong) and Danny (Steven Yeun) after they cross paths in a road rage incident. The main enabler of the show’s anger management issues is the edit, which can wield a cut like a sledgehammer to emphasize or undercut a moment. But maybe the most fun way that “Beef” accelerates Amy’s and Danny’s revenge spiral is the placement of each episode’s opening title card.
The title card shots in “Beef” are abrupt but visually convey everything that makes the characters so flawed: Each card looks on its surface like a museum piece carrying some deeper artistic merit, especially given how the show’s score hypes up the shots. But that pretension to one specific meaning is betrayed by the font over the imagery and the cut to the episode titles – the score, artwork, text, and editing coming together as if to pop an invisible balloon. The opening sets a baseline for the show’s particular palette of chaos, born out of ordinary people’s day-to-day hypocrisy and elevated to something wild and strange. And that’s the mood that creator Lee Sung Jin wanted to set from the very beginning.
“When I prepared the PowerPoint pitch for buyers, I wanted a very bombastic title card to catch everyone’s attention. I had loved the 16th-century painting ‘A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms‘ for some time, and I felt the look and themes of the painting fit the mood of the show,” Lee told IndieWire. Lee planned on using classic paintings in the public domain for all 10 episodes to convey a sense of bombast and the subversive glee of puncturing it, but he found an even better solution on set.
“David Choe, who plays Isaac, suggested I use his paintings. He stopped showing his work publicly over a decade ago, so he had hundreds of paintings no one had ever seen,” Lee said. “He graciously allowed me to pick the ones I felt fit the episodes the best.” Choe’s work is an excellent match for the series, frenetic and brimming over with messy emotion — whether that emotion is desire, longing, or something uglier.
Lee then had the title text custom-designed to fit each painting. “I worked closely with the company Sarofsky in designing each title. We used a lot of late ’90s and early aughts albums and magazines as inspiration, specifically Ray Gun,” Jin said. “The font was also customized by Sarofsky. We went through hundreds of fonts and ultimately landed at Balboa, but needed to tweak a few things to our liking.” The tweaks do their small smart to turn the screws as the series progress, looking like increasingly manic screenprints of something that should be a lot more elegant and orderly.
But Lee credits a lot of the title cards’ impact to composer Bobby Krlic (also known as The Haxan Cloak), whose work in TV and film tends to be a grandiose celebration of the twisted and fucked up, from “The Alienist” to “Midsommar” and “Beau Is Afraid.” “For me, Episode 3 feels like the perfect marriage between the painting and the score,” Lee said, and indeed the pounding drum and discordant horns somehow capture Danny’s panic at being spotted by Amy’s daughter as he tries to commit some light arson and Amy’s fake smile as she says a new chapter is about to start for her family.
While Lee loves that moment, his favorite painting is the finale’s “Figures of Light.” “It captures an outpouring of experience that mirrors how reality shifts for Danny and Amy in the show’s finale and even a sense of perspective,” he says. “The figure in the painting is peering down at the mess on the ground in the exact same way the high-top camera shot comes back on Danny’s and Amy’s wrecked cars.” Whatever turn each episode of “Beef” takes, the opening titles are the show’s way of yanking on the tripwire that makes the characters fall.