By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“Beef” on Netflix is watching two people have the worst day you have ever seen except it lasts forever and also, they are both jerks. Danny (Steven Yuen) and Amy (Ali Wong) are the hot-headed culprits in a road rage incident that starts the series (their “beef”). It is the poisonous gift that keeps on giving, not only to them, but to everyone in their lives. They deserve everything bad that happens to them as a result of their messed-up-ed-ness, and it’s painful to watch.
If ever two people were in need of therapy, Danny and Amy are them. Too bad that, according to Danny, “Western therapy doesn’t work on eastern minds.” Try an eastern therapist then? But it’s just an excuse, and Danny is the master of excuses and lies—anything to avoid accountability. The older son of Korean immigrant parents who had to return to Korea due to a failed motel business, Danny is in perpetual thrall to reinstating his parents into comfort in their golden years—and he will do anything, absolutely anything, to make sure that happens, without considering if what he’s willing to do is just making everything worse, which it is—and also, it’s usually illegal.
As a child, Amy conflated a conversation her parents had about how expensive kids are into “they never wanted me,” which propelled her into unsavory behaviors at a very young age, a pronounced lack of boundaries, and a need to keep everything to herself because—way beyond any Asian enculturation to not share one’s feelings—she believes if she tells anyone her “secrets,” no one will love her. It’s sad that she messes up everything in her life so badly—a lovely husband, a beloved daughter, a thriving career, and all the material accoutrements that by the time she decides to come clean—her prophecy turns out to be true. It’s too late.
There are some racial tensions demonstrated, within the Asian community and without. Amy goads her peace-loving husband George (Joseph Lee) into action at one point by telling him that Danny, during a visit to their house under false pretenses (it’s complicated), didn’t like hearing George was Japanese. Or there is the time when the plastic-y white LA businesswoman Amy hopes to partner with compliments Amy for being “so Zen.” I don’t know how anyone could mistake Amy’s 24/7 deer-in-headlights mask of agony for Zen but this woman does—because she is so self-absorbed, too. Or there is the time Danny and his brother, Paul (Young Mazino) are at the pool and a white woman declines to join (she makes a “tsk” noise and turns around; it is implied).
Yuen, famous for his role in “The Walking Dead,” does a great job of playing a 100% fake narcissist with a chip on his shoulder. Everything bad happens to him because it just figures, and any time he is in a good mood, it’s only because someone flattered him, or one of his dishonest schemes worked. Add that both Amy and Danny get a rush from behaving badly, and it’s a recipe for, as Amy acknowledges but keeps doing, spreading one’s “brokenness” to other people.
This is a highly cynical show. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be funny. Somebody that enjoys watching people implode on screen might think so. To me, it resembled “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” a dumpster fire that never burned out. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it. Train wrecks are fascinating, right? The twists and turns are entertaining, if disappointing, morally. It’s fun to watch Wong’s acting and also, how she manages to look like a grown person in her tiny body—seriously, how does she do that? I want her wardrobe consultant! I did laugh at the end of nearly every episode from just how crazy things got and how neatly they left you with your mouth open every 38 minutes. If you are the company you keep, you might find yourself feeling seedy after a couple of hours of this show. “Beef” demonstrates how “easy” it is to lie and cheat. To give in. And how hard it is to dig out, even though every decision is an opportunity to do just that, and stop, and set a new path.
Everyone in the show is constantly giving advice that they do not follow, or that did not work for them. Take for instance, Amy’s mother-in-law, Fumi (Patti Yasutake), who tells Amy how she and her late husband, a famous artist, refused to worry about money, so as not to “manifest” worry into their “magic circle” of life. Indeed, they had everything but money. So…it worked? It didn’t work? You didn’t worry about it and yep, you have none? This is good advice? Fumi now feels forced to make sacrifices to stay afloat (again she feels that way but there’s always a choice), and it sure seems like money comes in handy every time Amy pays for all her shopping.
Absolutely everyone in “Beef” lies, which is a sad outlook on life and the people around us. The men declare “I broke up with her” to save face every time a relationship ends, and insist that nothing hurts. The women fakely support their less successful partners or go about empty Hollywood lives looking for other people’s business to meddle in. Every time I started to feel empathy for one of the characters, they did something reprehensible, again. Is that judgy? I guess. But that is the trail of trash “Beef” leads you down, littered with disturbing expressionistic paintings and bumpy bulge-y sculptures. When you get the flashback to childhood, it doesn’t actually make you feel any better—it does not justify Danny and Amy’s adult behavior.
Some figures show that around 70% of people in this country experience childhood trauma. I’m not talking about racial trauma, although there is racial trauma implied, if not outright stated, in “Beef.” Danny’s cousin Isaac (David Cho) compares Koreans to the Italian mafia—not something to be proud of per se, unless you are looking for a way to feel acknowledged in a life of discrimination, which they seem to be doing, even if acknowledgement looks like notoriety.
It’s a miracle anyone is nice, in life, or in “BEEF.” We all can decide to perpetuate or end injustice, at least when it comes to ourselves. Get your act together, is all I can say to Amy and David. The best advice in the show is “let go.” Of your “beef.” That is the real fresh start. Will Amy and Danny learn to do this? That’s for you to find out—if you like train wrecks.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.