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No Problem with 'Beef'

"Beef" is a new dark comedy with a near entire Asian-American cast

“Anger is just a transitory state of consciousness,” Amy says early in Beef, a new series on Netflix starring a near entirely Asian-American cast.  Like much of what’s spouted by the two leads in this new dark comedy, this quasi-philosophical pondering is mired in bullshit.  Anger overwhelms Danny (Steven Yeun) and Amy (Ali Wong).  It is a far from fleeting affliction for these two who both struggle and thrive in a hot, dry Los Angeles landscape  

They are not the only ones.  George (Joseph Lee), Paul (Young Mazino), and Isaac (played by renowned street artist David Choe) are all serial liars.  Deceptive inhabitants of their own false realities.  But at the very center are Danny and Amy, arguably two sides of the same coin.  They will lie, cheat and steal to get what they want, going for whatever edge that they can.  Ironically, Isaac, a cousin recently out of jail in the series, is probably the most honest character of them all.

After nearly hitting a white SUV in a parking lot, Danny, a down-and-out construction worker, in a bout of road rage, goes after the driver, intent on getting some form of vengeance.  We soon learn this driver is Amy, a housewife and mother of an affluent family, and owner of a plant store.  What starts out as not even a light vehicular fender bender, evolves into a game of manipulation and sabotage.  

Danny Cho (Steven Yeun)

Danny lives with his somewhat unmotivated younger brother Paul.  He wants to earn enough money to buy his parents a house and support his sibling to some extent.  George is Amy’s artist husband, a tall, morally conscious partner, and a father with a rich family pedigree.  They share a daughter named June (Remy Holt).

We know that Danny and Amy are unhappy with their lives. That fact is established early on.  Danny struggles to find work and weighs taking his own life while Amy is somewhat frustrated with her boss Jordan, played by Maria Bellow, and what seems like a troubled marriage.  The car accident kind of ignites something in their lives, providing a kind of twisted purpose.  

After their car incident, they think of insidious little ways to get back at one another.  Without revealing too many spoilers.  Danny, under an alter ego, gets into Amy’s house and pees on her rug.  Meanwhile, Amy pretends to be her white assistant Mia (Mia Serafino), to start an online affair with Paul who quickly falls in love with her false identity.  

Paul Cho (Young Mazino)

Things go from bad to worse.  The initial road rage incident and the destruction it caused are trending on the web.  The chase ruined a private owner’s flower bed and the owner is intent on finding those responsible.  After a very public confrontation between Danny and Amy in Las Vegas, Jordan’s partner Naomi (Ashley Park) realizes that Amy was the one behind the wheel in the video.  Amy meets with Danny somewhat covertly and insists that he take the blame for the road rage incident for a price.  But we soon learn that Danny’s not one to own up to anything.  As more people get involved and the stakes get heavier, Beef builds to a violent yet funny confrontation that poses deep, heartfelt questions about human connection and finding life’s purpose. 

For a reason that I can’t quite figure out, the whole series has a soundtrack of late 90s and early ‘00s pop and rock hits like Sugar Ray’s ‘Fly’ and ‘Drive’ by Incubus.  For someone who grew up during that era, I found the inclusion of these songs to be kind of funny, keeping the more dramatic elements of the series from getting too serious or intense.  

As I watched the series I started to ask myself, “Can people change?”  There’s a point about midway through the series where Danny finds religion, a higher calling, and some spiritual forgiveness.  It’s 8 months past the road incident and he really seems to be in a better place.  He’s got a pretty girlfriend and he’s not fretting over money.  But that doesn’t really seem to last.  The same with Amy.  She finalizes a successful deal at work and buys a vacation home.  But she finds herself in couples counseling trying to save her marriage. 

Amy Lau (Ali Wong) and Danny (Steven Yeun)

Beef is about a beef, a grudge, or a petty quarrel that escalates into something tragic with humorous undertones.  There are some genuinely sincere, heartfelt moments in the series but much of that is outweighed by the sheer lunacy and mayhem that these characters seem to create for themselves and others.

As I mentioned, Beef stars a mainly Asian-American cast.  A rarity in mainstream film and television but something that’s gaining momentum now thanks to more diversity in the creative ranks as well as the increasing opportunities provided by streamers that simply weren’t around in the old days when mainstream media typically targeted a conventionally white audience.  And I’m sure it didn’t take a genius executive to deduce that there is in fact an Asian-American audience for Asian-American art and entertainment.

That’s what makes Beef special.  All the characters, aside from Danny’s parents, are plain old-born and bred Americans with their problems.  They complain in the same English vernacular as anyone else.  Complete with funny pop culture references as well as the aforementioned 90s radio hit.  These characters are ignorant, stupid, and clumsy like any other bonehead American with a scheme.  And dare I say that is a badge of honor.  

Amy (Ali Wong) and Danny (Steven Yeun)

Will there be a second season?  It’s possible that this series moves on much like White Lotus, with a different batch of characters in Season 2 with their own squabbles.  Whether that would work in the same way as Mike White’s project I do not know.  For now, however, I recommend Beef for its originality, its nearly all-Asian cast, and its dark humor.  Additionally, the show got better as the series progressed which is always a plus.  

While I’ve not seen Steven Yeun’s performance on The Walking Dead, I did enjoy his role in Minari.  Here he plays a pretty unlikeable character effectively.  However, I think he’s one of the weaker actors in the cast.  Young Mazino and especially David Choe steal the scenes that they’re in. This was my introduction to these two actors and I look forward to seeing them in other things going forward.  

Lee Sung Jin, Ali Wong and Steven Yeun

Come to Beef for its platter of young, talented Asian Americans. Stay for its story of mayhem and surprising sentimentality. This is a beef you want to hold onto for better or worse.