This Netflix Comedy Proves Anger Is Truly Our Universal Tongue
Better Late Than Never: Beef
In my years of watching television I’ve encountered incredible television that resonates with me on more levels than you might expect. But Netflix’s extraordinary new dark comedy Beef is the first series I’ve watched in decades that I honestly think might have designed for me alone and will no doubt strike a chord with anybody who sees it. I say this fully aware that this is a show about two Korean-Americans who have a steadily escalating destructive feud over what starts as an incident of road rage.
I have written in quite a few columns recently that I feel that life is little more than a series of microaggressions that we as a society are told to essentially bury because it is the way of the world. I don’t mean the bigger conflicts; I mean all the smaller ones. Every time the repairman runs late eating up our day, the cable doesn’t work, someone talks to loud in front of us, we automatically flare up and we have to work to suppress it. More than that, if we ever dare to show frustration — not outrage, but merely frustration — we are told variations that run from: “It is what it is” to “Why are you taking it out on me?” or worst of all: “Stay calm.”
That’s the other problem with life being microaggressions: we’re just supposed to not let it bother us, even though being bothered by these things is a perfectly normal reaction. Why? Because as a society — not just America, but everywhere — we are told that anger is a useless emotion and that showing it in any form is not merely bad for you, but spoils of it for everybody else. No one wants to deal with your anger. So you have to hold it in. Our entire lives we have to put up a face that everything that is bothering us isn’t bothering us.
I find this is a huge irony considering how much of our culture, whether it be politics, social media, journalism and cable news is built on outrage. There’s an entire business model built on telling us what we as a society should be angry about and it’s always directed at some huge aspect of our lives we can’t control: big business, powerful politicians, entertainers, the media — in short, there’s a business model telling us that collective outrage at the people who they consider wrong is the right thing for our society. That particular industry does so to make money off our collective anger, but don’t kid yourself: the reason it is so successful is that most of us are angry about how life and we have to take it out on somebody.
The problem I have with this, beyond the obvious, is that every aspect of this industry is fueled by collective outrage. Individual outrage is not only frowned upon, but it’s also considered dangerous. Your anger should be devoted to online petitions, voting a certain way, buying or not buying a certain product, watching a certain network. Individual outrage — well, no matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on, you’re viewed as a lunatic and an idiot. These industries thrive on collective outrage, when an individual follows this outrage to an extreme extent, they instantly denounce it. I don’t mean in the sense of massive violence, which is a progression of this: I mean by expressing your outrage in any public forum. Group protests, the media will cover with every fiber of their beings. Individual protest, unless you’re a politician they agree with; they’ll denounce you as a kook and deranged.
There is no way in our society to safely express your anger. I say this as a straight white male. I don’t drive, so I’ve never had road rage, but if there was such a thing as public transportation rage, I’d have the worst case imaginable. It’s not just the delays, the overcrowding, the endless races to meet the train; it’s the mock civility they give you when something goes wrong. “Thank you for your patience” may be the worse microaggression society can throw at you. We never have a choice in these cases but to be patient. Of course, if you aren’t patient, they can throw you off the train or call the cops. And you have no outlet. You have to accept that this is how things will be because no one’s ever going to do anything about it.
We also hear repeatedly (and Beef makes it just as clear) that anger never does any good. There are so many examples in our history when, in fact, anger has done good but for the purposes of this article, I’m just going to deal with the new Golden Age of TV.
So much of the genre has reflected on the White Male Antihero (there’s more to it) it’s worth remember the other commonality so many of these lead they have they’re all angry and taking their rage out on the world. Tony Soprano did it to his fellow gangsters. Vic Mackey did it to the streets. Walter White did it by going from Mr. Chips to Scarface. Raylan Givens showed it by forcing criminals into a situation where he could shoot them. Nor is this a characteristic limited to the White Male Antihero: Patty Hewes took out her rage on corporate America (and everyone she knew) and Olivia Pope and Annalyse Keating did the same on the politically powerful and the criminal justice system. All of these people were fundamentally toxic personalities because they were so angry. But don’t pretend that the viewer was not only entertained by watching what they did, but angry themselves at the people who tried to moderate them. (Why else would so many viewers express such vitriol towards Skyler White on Breaking Bad?) The series around these characters were brilliant in other ways, to be sure — they featured extraordinary acting, writing and incredible storytelling arcs — but it’s also likely the reason the viewer has been drawn to them is because they are living vicariously through them.
And that is perhaps what not only makes Beef such a great show but a unique one. The greatest shows of television over the past twenty years usually deal with characters acting out their rage fantasies in some part of society. Beef is the first one I know of that has anger at its core out-front and doesn’t bother saying it’s about anything else. It’s about how anger affects our lives. That it happens to deal with Korean Americans has a separate level to it, because almost all of the series involve angry white men or angry white women.
Even I know that Asian-Americans have a different burden of racism: that of being the ‘model’ minority; the high achieving one, the polite one, the ‘good’ one. There is also the casual racism that most Americans will rarely differentiate between them, you might as well be a Chinese-American as a Korean one in the eyes of many of us, and not even the more enlightened ones. One of the major reasons that Beef works as well as it does, at least in the first two episodes I’ve seen, is that the protagonists Danny and Amy have much more in common than they would in any part of the world and they turn on each other immediately.
The story begins with Danny going to a hardware store, trying to decide whether he wants to return a type of grill or by another. He’s apparently done this three times. He decides not to do so because he doesn’t have the receipt. He gets into his car and a driver drives up to him and honks the horn. Danny is outraged, and the drivers reaction is to flip him the bird. He drives away, but the drivers ends up tailing him and they nearly get into a collision. Danny memorizes the license plate and tries to track it down.
Danny Cho is, to put it mildly, not in a good place. We learn his family lost their motel when his brother Paul was arrested for selling illegal baby formula. He’s now essentially running a failing contracting business and taking care of his brother Isaac who spends every day on the computer, in some vague idea with crypto. Danny is apparently the only good son in his family and he’s cracking under the pressure.
It does not help that seeing a white client the next day he practically begs for work and after they hire him, he hears that client’s wife tell her husband to get the balls to fire him. That actually happens after he nearly kills himself trying to cut down a tree on the property. He asks Paul, who has gotten out of prison, to lend him some money and Paul does. Danny then immediately puts his money in crypto and loses almost all of it. We later learn why he bought the grills to begin with: he was the trying to find the least painful to kill himself. What propels him to move forward is his single-minded goal to find out who cut him off in traffic.
That person is Amy Lau, a Korean-American business woman. She is wealthy, married to a stay at home husband and has a child. She has been spending the last several years trying to negotiate a deal to get her furniture sold at a nationwide realtor. We’ve seen for awhile the kind of contortions she’s had to do to get through this, which includes suffering the aggression of her mother-in-law, attending the ‘mushroom’ party where the mushrooms are not hallucinogenic, and finally getting through to a meeting with Jordan. (More on her later.)
Danny’s rage is built on his lot in life, which is terrible. Amy’s rage seems to be built on a similar model: the drive to have it all. She is not comforted by her husband’s Buddhist koans and is upset because the combination to the safe has been changed. This safe carries her gun, and I won’t tell you why she wants, save to say that it’s for purposes that I imagine at night progressives really believe members of the NRA want them.
When Danny finds the address of the person who cut him off, he mocks the family is wealthy but when he opens the door he is shocked to see a Korean woman. The conversation they have is genuinely civil, and truly empathetic, mainly because Danny is convinced her husband was the driver. It is not until Danny learns the car is hers that he commits his ‘revenge’ which is as juvenile as you can get.
Amy’s reaction is incredibly out of proportion. She memorizes his license plate, finds out his business name and then starts putting horrible Yelp reviews on it. Her husband wants her to let it go but is convinced to track him down. They go to the motel, find out its his old address, and she refuses to show anything resembling remorse, calling him ‘skeevy’. She begins to catfish him on line, using a picture of a white woman.
Both of them leave angry messages on each other’s voicemail. Danny’s is pure bravado; Amy is that of rich entitlement. It does not help that both of them are still going through issues with their families. Danny starts another business with his brother so that his old business won’t feel the damage. He has no interest in taking Isaac seriously, no matter what ideas he has. Amy is dealing with some far more blatant problems. In one of the darkest scenes the series has done so far, Amy and her husband are an exhibition of her mother-in-law. Her mother-in-law is an extremely successful artist in the world of furniture and has personal stories. Jordan is in attendance and immediately after the guide leaves wonders if its true. When Amy’s husband tells her he saw it happen, she then makes an offer to buy it even though this isn’t an auction. In the mind of the rich entitled white woman, everything has a price. When her husband stands on principle, Jordan abruptly leaves and brushes off Amy. Amy is angry — because her husband would buckle down to the white woman’s privilege for her own good. Not long after that she leaves a message on Danny’s phone and graffiti his truck. (“I’M A BITCH’ is one of the phrases.)
Are all of their actions extreme? Yes. Are any of them implausible? Absolutely not. I think that’s the reason that Beef has been one of the most viewed shows on Netflix since it dropped to two months ago: I think, under the surface, everybody’s capable of the actions these characters these take. This is a frightening thing to admit, I grant you, but it doesn’t make it any less true. There are times we all just want to let the veneer of society go and express the rage a lifetime of microaggression have left on us on the nearest person we can find. Danny and Amy spend the first two episodes looking like they want to explode at anyone who looks at them funny. On their own, this would have diminished after one incident. It is that they are both these kinds of personalities that leads all of the horrors that follow.
I have spent so much described the story that I left out the performers, both of whom are very famous but not to me. Steven Yeun, most well-known for playing Glenn on The Walking Dead before he realized his potential in Minari which earned him a deserved Oscar nomination, plays Danny. Danny is burdened by trying to follow the model of the traditional Korean son and is outraged by the laziness that his brother Isaac shows. He’s angry he doesn’t have a long-term goal when Danny is stuck on a failed one and he’s just as pissed when he learns that Isaac’s dream girl is a white woman and to be a house husband. He is clearly carrying burdens that most of us can’t look at it, and its small wonder that he turns on Amy the way he goes.
Ali Wong is arguably the most famous Asian-American comedian working today. She had a role where she was underutilized (as were so many performers) on the show American Housewife but has done voice work in some of the most brilliant animated series today, such as Tuca and Bertie and Big Mouth. She does not reach out for the comedy that is in this material (and make no mistake, this show can be hysterical at times) but rather the anger in it. Amy is someone who has been putting her best foot forward her entire life and can’t be bothered with details. When her husband argues that there are more important things in money she snaps: “That’s the kind of thing people with money always say!” which is one of the truest remarks I’ve heard said on any TV show in years. The road rage brings all the things that have been beneath the surface in both protagonists to the forefront, but so far Amy is the most vituperative of them: she is incredibly angry at the world, particularly her husband’s placidity. The rest of the cast is equally superb, including Ashley Park who shows the potential she has not come close to realizing on Emily in Paris and Maria Bello in a role that screams “I’m an ally in public but a Karen in private.”
It does not shock me that since Beef premiered it is quickly rising in the ranks for Best Limited Series and that Yeun and Wong are among the major contenders for Best Actor and Actress in that category. They will say it is because of the brilliance of the performances and the writing (which are spot-on) or that it looks in a real way at the Korean-American community in a way no real work of art chooses to do (sad but almost certainly true) or because its one of the darkest and most entertaining works of 2023 (little question of that.) All of that is true, but there’s another truth that makes it resonate to me personally and I think to anybody, regardless of your race, gender or sexuality. We live in a world that provokes outrage in our homes, but urges we suppress in it public. The world is designed to drive us to these kinds of things but we’re supposed to pretend it doesn’t bother us or that it’s not a big deal. I imagine that anyone who watches the actions of Danny and Ali in this series will at some point find themselves nodding along or saying: “Sounds about right.” We could all do things like they do if we get pushed hard enough. Oh yes you could.
My score: 4.75 stars.