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How Beef Decided On Its Episode-Defining Title Quotes

The new Netflix original tearing up the streamer's charts is "Beef," a dramedy featuring Steven Yeun and Ali Wong as two people from opposite tax brackets whose lives spiral into nightmarish absurdity as they chase down a vendetta against one another after a road rage incident. The premise is entertaining enough, but the series, produced by A24 Films of "Everything Everywhere All at Once" fame, quickly proves itself far more surreal and disturbing than its setup belies. It's no wonder "Beef" is among the most bingeable Netflix shows in recent memory.

Every element of the series hints at an almost Lynchian sense of unease lurking behind the luxury homes and run-down apartments of southern California, and a viewer's first hint at that aching dimension comes with the title of Episode 1, "The Birds Don't Sing, They Screech in Pain." Indeed, every character is revealed by the episode's end to be hiding their inner turmoil behind a smiling fa├žade.

In an interview with "Beef" creator and showrunner Lee Sung Jin published Friday, April 7, in Variety, Lee described the process of writing those unnerving titles. "It was fun," he said. "We had a shared document in the writers' room that throughout the writing season that writers threw quotes into. For most of them, it wasn't until all the scripts were finished that I went back and tried to couple them with the right ones."

The titles after Episode 1 are no less unnerving, drawing on quotes from the likes of feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, literary theorist Joseph Campbell, and psychologist Carl Jung. But Lee says it was the first, with its references to tortured birdcall, that helped set the tone for the series.

Werner Herzog and other inspirations went into Beef's titles

Of all the strange episode titles in "Beef," the prize for most existentially dreadful goes to Episode 1, "The Birds Don't Sing, They Screech in Pain." The title is appropriately a paraphrasing of humanity's most beloved killjoy, Werner Herzog, who uttered something close to it in the Les Blank documentary, "Burden of Dreams." In the footage, Herzog is at his wits' end while filming a movie in the depths of a Peruvian jungle. Typifying his ability to frame even the most sublime situations as existentially terrifying, Herzog says, "The trees here are in misery and the birds are in misery. I don't think they sing. They just screech in pain."

According to showrunner Lee Sung Jin, a writer on the series showed him the clip early on in the writing process and Lee knew it was right for the pilot. "One of our writers, Alex Russell, day two of the room was like, 'Oh, you guys have to see this Herzog clip,'" Lee said, later adding, "That cracked me up, and it felt very appropriate for the pilot."

However, while by far the darkest and the first chronologically, Episode 1's title was not the first Lee settled on. That honor goes to the finale, "Figures of Light," which Lee derived from a quote by pioneering psychologist Carl Jung. "The finale quote is probably the one quote that I've had since inception," Lee said. "The Carl Jung quote is probably the main North Star for the show, even before I pitched it. It's, 'One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious,' and that's ultimately what this show is about."