Beef is a 2023 Netflix American dramedy (though very light on the comedy and humor) starring Steven Yeun and Ali Wong. Yeun plays Danny Cho a down on his luck, barely hanging on Korean-American construction worker who is involved in a rage road incident opposite Wong’s Amy Lau, a small business owner who operates a successful plan store on the verge of being bought out and making it big. The two are absolutely consumed by this incident and continue to escalate their mutual rivalry further and further causing harm and consequence to one another and several instances of collateral damage dragging Lau’s husband (played by Joseph Lee), Cho’s brother (played by Young Mazino), and both their extended families and friends into their war of attrition. Over the course of ten episodes, Cho and Lau cause nearly irreparable damage to themselves, their loves ones, their businesses resulting in a final climactic showdown that irrevocably changes both their lives.
Now, to begin with Beef is an incredibly well made show. Truly from the top of the call sheet on down, I cannot imagine a better collection of actors for this story. Add that nearly everyone on screen for the majority of the runtime is of Asian descent and you have the best argument for diverse casting and storytelling. Yeun and Wong are both exemplary in their roles. You truly despise both Danny and Amy by the midpoint of the series and even the attempts to humanize or soften those impressions throughout the show don’t actually do so. In fact, you begin to dislike the characters even more as their reasonings and explanations do little to actually humanize their characters. The supporting cast as well from Amy’s stay at home, kind of bumbling husband to Danny’s young, stuck brother to his connected, sort of criminal cousin (played by David Choe) all have their moments to shine and develop. Hell, even the subplot at the Korean church had impressive performances and some of those were only literal minutes on screen. As well, the music selection is just top notch. Truly, the sound engineer or whoever chose the ending credits songs for each episode deserves an Emmy. Each song perfectly encapsulated the emotions and progress of each episode culminating in a at times cathartic and at times tense but still very much engaging finish to the episode.
Beyond the stellar production value (unsurprising considering the studio and names associated, A24 and Yeun/Wong respectively), the series manages to tackle a variety of dense and delicate subject matter without ever smacking you with a sledgehammer or being too apparent with its opinion. Class, the American Dream and what it really takes, the Immigrant experience, emotion, religion, etc.: all are discussed and seen on screen with care and understanding all through an Asian American lens. That is not to say that audiences have to be Asian American or have knowledge of that to understand the narrative merely that the story is being expressed through that experience. As a first generation child (like Danny and Amy) of non Asian immigrant parents, there were still many scenes and discussions and experiences on screen that resonated with me. And I imagine that would resonate with various audience of diverse backgrounds.
For example, there is a scene where Yeun’s character Danny attends an ex-girlfriend’s husband’s church. This takes place in episode 3 of the show. At this point, we have minimal background knowledge on Danny. We know that his business is failing and is having severe money issues. His much older parents are back in Korea, and their hopes of retirement and returning to the States are a far off dream at this point. His brother is of little to no help to their financial situation. To top it all off, his mother keeps asking about his romantic prospects. All in all, Danny is basically at rock bottom when he finds himself attending Edwin’s, his ex’s husband, church. There, drawn in by the music and seeming camaraderie, Danny just breaks down. He begins crying and having an emotional breakdown/catharsis to the point of literally falling upon himself. While this is happening, a stranger places their hand on his shoulder and whispers a few words of encouragement while they pray for/along with Danny. After, Edwin and Veronica, Danny’s ex, approach Danny after his emotional moment and try to get him to join their church, which is an hour away from his home, or at the very least leave his contact information. Before he leaves, they suggest he could do some work around the church since he was asking about jobs earlier. Danny obviously agrees as he is desperate for the work and money.
Now, regardless of race or class or background or even affiliation, anyone who has ever been part of or seen an Evangelical church operate immediately clocked what was happening. The intense and subtle manipulation that was happening was extremely uncomfortable and jarring for those familiar. Yet, the show itself does not attempt to pass judgment on the church or its members. Truly, it simply allows the events to transpire and for audiences to come to their own conclusions. This is of course aided by having Danny be a manipulative bastard himself moments after his intense emotional breakdown. And that also leads to the only real gripe I have with the show and the crux of why I don’t think it will have legs. Not a single one of the characters is likeable or someone the average viewer would root for.
Yes, there are tons of shows with unlikeable to downright disdainful and evil protagonists; however, those characters did not begin that way. Walter White was just a down on his luck beloved high school chemistry teacher and father who wanted to leave something behind for his family after his cancer diagnosis long before he became Heisenberg. While we learned that he was always a little bit Heisenberg as the series progressed, the audience already had an attachment to the character and the series began to punish him for his hubris anyhow. Same with Don Draper or Tony Soprano or most, if not all, complicated characters. And in the rare case that they were just unredeemable pieces of shit, then we enjoyed how the show would just harm and shit on them (looking at you Always Sunny). We don’t really ever get that in Beef with any character: main, supporting, or recurring. They all are just different levels of shitty narcissists. The only metric of decency is how much their actions harm others or just themselves.
So while the show is unquestionably well made with a stellar, engaging cast giving great performances. That one character choice will probably make it a one season series that stays in Netflix’s Top Ten for two to three weeks at best and then is quietly forgotten. Would have made an incredible movie, and, to be honest, I think that might have been the original intention.