The two central characters of the Netflix series Beef are so similar they don’t realize it. Not to say that it’s not uncommon for foes to have similarities. Batman and The Joker reportedly have a history dating back to the time The Joker was known as The Red Hood but a fall in some chemicals turned him into The Joker. Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) were friends before they split ways. The same is for Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) and Victor Von Doom (Dr. Doom).
Set in the Los Angeles area and its suburbs, the 10-episode series focuses mainly on the southeast Asian community with a predominant cast of actors of southeast Asian ancestry. Danny Cho (Stephen Yeun) is a Korean-American contractor who has been hit with rough times. When the series opens, he’s waiting to return some Hibachi grills and a carbon monoxide detector at a home improvement store for the third time. He waits inpatiently behind the caucasian clerk talking pleasantry with the caucasian customer knowing he probably won’t get the same courtesy and he doesn’t because the clerk remembers him. Danny doesn’t have the receipt either and the clerk makes an announcement over the PA humiliating him.
He goes to his truck in the parking lot to leave but as he’s backing out, a white SUV nearly hits him. Even though it would’ve been at fault, the horn is laid on as Danny yells at the driver, who eventually drives on, but stops and gives Danny the finger. And that’s the tipping point, Danny drives after it and part of their chase is caught on cell phone camera and uploaded., The driver of the SUV is Amy Lau (Ali Wong), who I’m guessing is of Chinese ancestry because of Wong’s own ancestry.
Nothing much happens except some damage to a homeowner’s yard, but Danny does see the license plate number. He goes back to his apartment where he shares with his irresponsible younger brother, Paul (Young Mazino), who does nothing but stay online, play games and waste money they can’t waste. Their parents have returned to South Korea following an incident that lost them the motel they were managing. It was due to some illegal activities their cousin, Isaac (David Choe), was doing that got him time incarcerated.
Ali, on the other hand, lives in an posh affluent home in one of the better neighborhoods. She’s on the heels of securing a deal with Jordan (Maria Bello), a wealthy woman who is the boss of the home improvement store Danny and Ali were just at. Ali operates a plant-selling business called Koyohaus. Her husband, George Nakai (Joseph Lee) a stay-at-home dad and sculptor who lives in the shadow of his late famous artist father. There’s also Fumi (Patti Yasutake), Ali’s mother-in-law who doesn’t care for Ali, mainly because she and her son are Japanese, and also because she just doesn’t feel anyone is good enough for her son.
Both Danny and Ali feel overwhelmed by the traditions of their eastern cultures in a western civilization. Danny still wants to uphold the traditions while his brother is more Americanized. And Ali’s dealing with Jordan, who seems to be about cultural appropriation, is also complicated by a rivalry with a Naomi (Ashley Park), a neighbor Amy’s who is also Jordan’s sister-in-law but functions more as a sycophant.
Danny is hoping to find some land to build his parents a home so that they can return to America proud following the loss of their business, but he can’t make good business deals without doing some shady stuff with Isaac who just got released. Danny is also still pining over Veronica (Alyssa Gihee Kim), an ex-girlfriend married to the more successful Edwin (Justin H. Min), who is heavily involved in a Korean church in the San Fernando Valley. We discover why Danny has been purchasing the grills because he has intended to kill himself by carbon monoxide poisoning, but decides that he needs to get revenge on the SUV driver.
But when he talks himself into meeting Ali by saying he is a contractor, he initially thinks her husband is the driver, but when he finds out it’s Ali, he does something that sets off the fighting that results in online catphishing and even more dangerous acts that spiral out of control. Ali is worried that the road rage incident might jeopardize her deal with Jordan, but is lucky no one has recognized her vehicle.
This reminded me of two movies, the 1987 Barry Levinson-directed Tin Men where Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito play two salesmen who begin a similar feud. The other movie is the 2002 Changing Lanes with Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson who come from different socio-economic backgrounds but they discover they have the same problems with those around them. Both movies involve simple fender benders that get out of hand.
Neither Danny nor Ali are right nor wrong. Yes, it was wrong for Ali to lay on the horn and flip Danny off, but what the hell was he thinking going after her? The tension is in the air in a post-Covid world where anti-Asian sentiments are at their highest in decades along with Millennials like Danny and Ali expected to still hold up the same success rate of those older than them.
We learn more about Danny and Ali I won’t mention but apparently they both seem to want the best but don’t really know what the best is. Throwing in Isaac’s erratic behavior is a recipe for more dangerous activity. The series is created by Lee Sung Jin and many episodes are written and/or directed by talent of southeast Asian ancestry. It’s an eye opening look at a culture that is actually not much different from others.
Yeun proves why he is one of the best actors working right now. While most people remember him as Glenn Rhee on The Walking Dead, he has proven himself to be a great actor in Minari where he was nominated for an Oscar. Yet, his recurring appearances on Conan showed he has the ability to do comedy and make people laugh. And that is what is needed for a role like this.
Wong is also a welcome delight to see in her role. With a history as a stand-up comedian, she manages to mix comedy when she needs to but also hold herself back when the role calls for it. Her interactions with Yeun are wonderful as showing how these two strangers could grow to despise each other over something that was just a common mistake people make every day in America and don’t even think about an hour later.
Now, to address the elephant in the room, the casting of Choe as Isaac has been controversial as he made comments in 2014 about sexually assaulting a woman on a podcast but didn’t do it in real life. Considering Isaac is a douchebag criminal, I think it’s appropriate casting. He’s an unlikeable character and gets what he deserves. But I still think they should’ve cast someone else. It’s a dark cloud that hangs over the show.
Not to give much away but the ending hints there might be a second season and Jin has expressed interest. Both Yeun and Wong have a good chemistry that might hold on for the second season. It’s quite possible Isaac will be MIA and possible in jail during the second season. It’s a wonderful series and it’s mixture of music mostly from the 1990s might bring up some great memories for Millennials and Gen Xers.
What do you think? Please comment.