“Anger is just a transitory state of consciousness,” is what Amy Lau’s husband, George, says in response to an act of aggression in the hit new A24 series “Beef.” The statement embodies the normative and widely-accepted act of moving on and letting go from anger. Yet, “Beef” takes the less mature route and entertains an alternative approach to anger through its complex depiction of human rage, vengeance and chaos.
“Beef” was released to Netflix on April 6, 2023. Created by Korean Director Lee Sung Jin, the Black comedy stars Steven Yeun and Ali Wong as Danny Cho and Amy Lau, respectively. Yeun and Wong also served as executive producers.
The 10-episode miniseries starts off with a bang — literally. After the action-packed road rage incident, Danny and Amy become dead-set on vengeance. Their thirst for revenge culminates in an obsession with each other, both becoming increasingly inappropriately intertwined in the other’s life.
On the surface, Danny and Amy could not be more different. Danny is a struggling contractor grappling with a failing business, while Amy is the owner of a successful plant selling business. Danny lives with his emotionally distant younger brother in a cramped apartment. Amy lives in a spacious remodeled Calabasas house with her husband and young daughter. Most relevantly, Danny drives an old Toyota Tacoma pickup truck and Amy drives a white Mercedes-Benz SUV.
The two come from incredibly different backgrounds and socioeconomic standings. But, when it boils down to pure character, they are essentially the same. The two derive immense stress from their respective lives. Danny is burdened with providing for and attempting to reunite his family and Amy’s work prevents her from enjoying the comfortable life she built for herself. Neither have an outlet to release their pent up frustration and fury. That is, until they meet each other.
The beauty of “Beef” is that it’s raw (pun intended). It not only showcases but also embraces pure human rage to an extreme. The show grows to be so intense that it’s easy to forget the feud started in the parking lot of a home improvement store.
“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?” said Lee when speaking behind his intentions of the show in an interview with GQ.
The show also captures fragile vulnerability with the multitude of wild rage and the eerily silent anger scenes. The best performances are when anger is suppressed. It is in those moments that Danny and Amy are exposed for what they really are: empty. Both are victims of a cycle of self destruction, constantly chasing a feeling of completeness yet never feeling fulfilled.
Yeun and Wong deliver a masterclass in acting through their depictions of self-loathing, growing fixated on vengeance to fill the void that consumes their life. The two perfectly capture the feeling of desperation in just their facial expressions, adding elements of relatability to not necessarily justify but humanize their character’s horrifying actions. This is either done in fits of rage, like when Yeun screams, “What you did was not nice! It’s not nice to do that!” or in moments of quiet reflection, when Wong painfully delivers, “Everything fades. Nothing lasts. We’re just a snake eating its own tail.”
“Beef” is also incredibly culturally accurate. The show features a predominantly Asian cast, yet it never falls trap to the typical stereotypes and plotlines. It instead captures the often unseen elements, such as the Asian religious experience, generational trauma and the burden of family responsibility. Danny’s emotional return to Korean Christian Church service was particularly moving. Yeun flawlessly depicts the feeling of cultural and spiritual desperation as he sobs during worship in episode 3.
But most authentically, race is used as another ingredient in the characterization of Amy and Danny as opposed to their main personality trait. Their racial experience is realistically impacted by the environment they live in and the socioeconomic status they inhabit, providing a refreshing form of Asian representation uncommon in mainstream media.
Yet the brilliance of the show is clouded in controversy due to its casting of David Choe, who portrays Danny’s cousin Isaac. On Choe’s DVDASA (which stands for “Double Vag, Double Anal, Sensitive Artist”) podcast from 2014, the actor and artist recounted the story of how he coerced a masseuse into performing a non-consensual sexual act on him. Following the release of the episode, Choe released a statement saying, “I am not a rapist … I am an artist and a storyteller and I view my show DVDASA as a complete extension of my art.”
He then followed up in 2017, citing his struggles with mental illness as the reason for his words and crediting his time in rehabilitation to helping him to understand the harm he caused.
The recent success of “Beef” has resulted in the resurfacing of Choe’s past actions. As a result, Lee, along with Yeun and Wong, acknowledged the controversy in an official statement to Vanity Fair:
“The story David Choe fabricated nine years ago is undeniably hurtful and extremely disturbing. We do not condone this story in any way, and we understand why this has been so upsetting and triggering. We’re aware David has apologized in the past for making up this horrific story, and we’ve seen him put in the work to get the mental health support he needed over the last decade to better himself and learn from his mistakes.”
However, the combination of critical praise and controversy fuels the debate over whether it is appropriate to separate the art from the artist and the point at which viewers should draw the line.
From an artistic standpoint, “Beef” cooks up a delicious meal of destruction, allowing viewers to indulge in petty chaos and unfiltered emotion. It’s existential, tragic, hilarious and perhaps one of the best shows to be released on Netflix in recent years.
This appeared in the April 27th Daily Nexus printed edition.