SPOILER ALERT: There are specific details about the Netflix series Beef in this article.
In case you haven’t heard, there’s this show that everyone has been gushing about since it dropped on Netflix April 6. Lee Sung Jin‘s destined-to-be-an-Emmys-contender dark comedy Beef follows two strangers, Danny (Steven Yeun) and Amy (Ali Wong) who fall in all-consuming wrath with each other after a hella petty road rage incident. As the story wildly unravels, the two continue to escalate their feud to the point where it starts to chip away at their own sanity while recklessly eroding their relationships with their family and friends. In other words, it just goes too far and gives a totally different meaning to the term “frenemies”.
But yes, all you have heard is true. Beef is a remarkable feat of storytelling that can move you to tears as much as it can trigger you. It’s darkly funny as it is incredibly moving. It’s hyperrealistic as it is grounded. It’s quiet as it is thrilling. It’s irreverent as it is poignant. It’s a blend of genres that make it genreless.
This subversive and almost satirical series is remarkable in a time when people are hungry for something different, risky, ambitious and overall, entertaining. Steven Yeun takes us on a journey of his acting range, delivering a performance that clears space on his mantle for an Emmy. Ali Wong shows us a completely different side of herself with a laser-focused performance that takes her career to a whole new level — a different dimension, even. Along with a stellar supporting cast and a vision from Lee, Beef is a incredible feat in television.
The slang term “beef” is often equated with “problem”. So when someone says, “I have beef with you”, it means that they want to possibly square up and fight because you did some bullshit that they are not fucking with. However, when I dove deep into the ChatGPT of it all, I found that the acronym “BEEF” stands for many things including “Balance, Eyes, Elbow, and Follow-through”, a teaching method used when teaching young basketball players how to shoot correctly (arguably, this can also apply to the basketball in the series). I also found that “BEEF” also is an acronym for wellness: Balance, Exercise, Eating well and Finding time for yourself — how poetic for a series about two people who are desperately trying to find peace within their lives.
Considering my trust for ChatGPT is still skeptical, it felt like this wellness acronym of BEEF was made up, but apparently it is used by many wellness professionals and therapists — specifically an author named Jennifer Ashton and her book “The Self-Care Solution: A Modern Mother’s Must-Have Guide to Health and Well-Being”, which cannot be found anywhere. ChatGPT also claims that The American Institute of Stress and the Mayo Clinic practice variations on the BEEF model but, again, these sources could not be verified.
For the sake of convenience, let’s just say that this BEEF model of self-care is one of the many themes explored in this mille-feuille of a series that will fuck you up in the best way possible. The genreless series that fluctuates from a dark comedy to a drama to a bizarre rom-com to a tale of revenge to a hyperrealistic thriller to a unexpected moving story about relationships. All the while, it does not stray from the title: “beef”.
Amy and Danny have a tight, obsessive grip on this road rage “beef” throughout the series and it eats away at them in different ways as they ruin each other’s and their own lives. Danny is a blue collar worker; a contractor that is at a crossroads in his life where he is trying to make something of himself because, well, there’s no turning back. He needs to make his struggling business work in order to survive and he sees it as his only option as he tries to build a house for his parents. All the while he tries to maintain his relationship with his directionless younger brother Paul (Young Mazino) and navigate the return of his sketchy cousin Isaac (David Choe) who was recently released from prison.
Amy’s life looks picture perfect as she lives her best upper class Calabasas life. She owns her own fancy plant-selling business which is on the verge of entering a huge deal with Forsters, a home improvement store headed by Jordan (Maria Bello) the epitome of a wealthy Angeleno white woman. Even so, her marriage to her adorably clueless, well-meaning and somewhat delusional gratitude journal-writing husband George (Joseph Lee) seems like its falling apart but no one wants to say anything about it. Her mother-in-law Fumi (Patti Yasutake) passive aggressively shades her all the time and she forces herself to be friends with her neighbor Naomi (Ashley Park), who is giving Real Housewives of Calabasas.
It’s no wonder that both of these people are filled with rage — and it is something that bonds them even though the pair of them handle rage in different ways. Danny is very physical with his rage while Amy uses words and her wiles as a vessel for her rage. At the end of this journey, it’s their rage that helps them find a more honest version of themselves. They just had to go through a bunch of intense and shady shit in order to reach that point. This goes for any person at a crossroads in their lives. However, in this year of 2023, Beef‘s tell of rage and existential crisis is hits different of those of the Xennial era.
Xennials are said to be that bastardized generation on the cusp of Gen X and Millenial. The range of birth years for Xennials are fairly fluid as long as they fall in the range of the late 1970s and early 1980s. And lo and behold, those who are of that age are now in their 40s which is essentially the perfect harvesting time for a mid-life crisis. It seems that that both Amy and Danny are going through a mid-life criss in Beef. That said, the series hits a bit different for fortysomethings who are going through major life changes to the next act of their lives. For many fortysomethings, entering into this unknown can bring about anxiety, lots of questions, stress, a need to find connection (hence Danny connecting with Korean Christianity — something that many have loved), hasty life choices, fear of mortality, and, of course rage.
The series is bleeding existential Xennial angst as it is coated with a soundtrack that screams TRL and burned CDs from Napster downloads. When Amy listens to O-Town’s “Liquid Dreams” after her road rage run-in, I immediately connected with this person and the story. This goes for all the various needle drops throughout including Hoobastank’s “The Reason”, Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Wanna Wait”, Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle”, Collective Soul’s “Shine”, and Tori Amos’s “Cornflake Girl”. They lay it on thick to create a soundscape of Sugar Ray, Incubus, Limp Bizkit, Bush, Bjork and the Smashing Pumpkins to help fortysomethings like myself fully be immersed in this world and in turn, it helped me navigate my own rage.
It’s no secret that I had my own version of Beef at the end of last year when I had to step back from this industry because of the toxic experiences that informed my work ethic and my value. I had inward rage that I did not know where to place — so I started just taking it out on others (mainly my last job) and myself, like Amy and Danny. I just didn’t put it on full display. I kept it hidden and, what happens when rage gets suppressed? It comes out in a cacophony of emotions, with rage leading the charge.
Only those closest to me saw this meltdown — it was not pretty. As I put on a show and performed as the “Dino” the general public expected me to be, I was slowly losing bits and pieces of my authentic self. I, like Amy and Danny, needed to fall apart in order to put myself back together again. After a nice rock-bottom meltdown, I began this process of unlearning systemic practices that bolstered old ideas and ways of thinking. I started to follow my own path rather than the one paved for me by dominant culture. In essence, I was practicing BEEF: Balance, Exercise, Eating well and Finding time for yourself — with balance being the north star.
After the pandemic, racial reckoning and the all the long-overdue world-altering cultural changes that have happened in the past 5 years or so, everyone is going through it with marginalized people receiving the the short end of the stick, as usual.
Beef helps lead the charge a changing Hollywood where nuanced portrayals of marginalized people are becoming more mainstream. The series doesn’t spend time explaining why their Asian-ness matters in this story. Yes, I see that they are Asian. And yes, I realize there are unapologetic Asian nuances throughout. But the series does not have to explain why they belong in this world. They just exist. Their Asian-ness is recognized in its own way, but it is not the centerpiece. Like every other community, Asians have wild, messy rage — but without the white gaze.
When it comes to the rage of it all, marginalized folks tend to have a lot of pent up rage due to anger, frustration, discrimination, injustice, and oppression that have been present in their lives. Each day, there are a myriad of discriminatory situations happening that can be triggering and it never gets easier. For many people of color, they measure their anger in front of the dominant culture in order to avoid the “Angry <FILL IN RACE HERE> Man/Woman” stereotype. Now that the world has moved past that antiquated way of thinking (for the most part), many of us are trying to figure out how to channel and navigate that rage and Beef is that cautionary tale. (You can listen to me discuss more about the identity of it all with Jeff Yang, Phil Yu and Rebecca Sun in the “They Call Us Beef” podcast episode of They Call Us Bruce)
Because marginalized folks turn their rage inward, it can often lead to self-destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse, self-harm, and even suicide. The beginning of the series has Danny buying a bunch of hibachi grills to assist him in suicide via charcoal-burning (yes, this is a big thing). Danny realized it wasn’t the answer — even if he was using gas powered hibachi grills instead of charcoal-burning ones. There’s a sense of humor to it, but also Lee is hyperaware that suicide is no joke.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis released earlier this year, showed that White people were the only group to see an overall drop in their age-adjusted suicide rate between 2018 and 2021. Meanwhile, American Indian or Alaska Native had the highest proportional increase in suicide rate between 2018 and 2021, The suicide rate among Black community also increased by about 19%, while Latino communities also saw an uptick of 7%.
This is also evident in today’s queer youth as seen in Trevor Project’s 2022 national survey. It found that 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. It also found that LGBTQ youth of color reported higher rates of attempting suicide than their white peers in the past year.
Yes, Beef is a wild WTF masterpiece that is a cat and mouse game for our entertainment, but it also has a message merged within Amy’s hair journey. Lee leans into their rage. He let’s Amy and Danny explore it and suffer the consequences so that they can learn. Lee subverts what we would normally see from Asian characters in American film and TV who rarely show rage of this variety. Lee goes full out Falling Down with this story and it not only works but also asks “How far would you go to feed your rage and how far would you go for reconciliation?”
All is brought into focus at the very end where Amy cuddles in the hospital bed with Danny, who is in really bad shape after the last two episodes of madness that made me ask, “How the fuck did they survive that?” The final scene is a bookend to the first moment Amy and Danny met each other before their feud. They connected. They smiled. They saw each other. In one split second we felt a meet-cute, and it stayed with us throughout and pays off at the very end when Danny begins to put his arm around Amy in the bed before the screen cuts to the credits.
As I try to figure out where I am going in my life is headed now that I am past the age of 40, rage has taught me to try and build supportive relationships with other people — middle aged folks specifically — who understand me and validate my experiences without judgment. Amy and Danny’s relationship — in it’s own fucked up way — was a form of bonding. They are the only ones that fully saw each other. Their rage bonded them and also taught them to say in the end, “Yeah, all this back-and-forth revenge isn’t worth it” probably because they have exhausted themselves and they literally just want to get some sleep. I felt that in my soul because I’m tired of this rage that has been hovering over me since my early 20s.
During a Netflix event for Beef last week, we were encouraged to “Release Your Rage” by participating in painting, drinking kombucha, making our own sage bundles, potting our own plants and sound baths. In addition, the inimitable (retired) stylist Law Roach was on hand to help unpack scenes from the series but also to talk about his experience with rage and putting that into context with burn out.
“I think that we’re conditioned to look at working all the time as a badge of honor.” Roach said. He said that we are often — in America mostly — are programmed to compete about who is the busiest adding, “If you’re not overextending yourself; if you’re not working yourself to the bone; if you’re not barely making it; if you’re not sick if you’re not annoyed then you really aren’t being successful –and that was really one of my big things. I just said this the whole time: I’ve been suffering for success… I realized that I didn’t want to suffer anymore. I want my success and I want my success to be linked to my happiness, not my unhappiness.”
He never really had straight-up rage in his career (at least not on the level of Amy and Danny’s), but as a queer person of color, he was always ready to fight when it came to pushback — which is healthy because he spoke his truth whenever he got the chance. “I think when I when I started my career, I never wanted to be quiet. I’ve always been fighting for the recognition not just for myself, but other people who look like me and want to do what I’ve done… I never wanted to be disregarded.”
This brings us back to the self care of it all.
At one point in the series, Danny says “Western therapy doesn’t work on Eastern Minds” which is a very interesting quote in a time of post pandemic self-care and wellness. For one, it’s accurate to say that there are a certain generation of Asian, other immigrant families and people of color who live by this quote when it comes to therapy.
Many look down upon therapy and if you come from a very religious background, praying away the problems — which are probably the same kind of people who think you can “pray the gay away”. Others just feel like it’s nonsense, but perhaps there is good reason. There are many forms of therapy and self-care that have been essentially appropriated, bastardized, and colonized by the west including sage and palo santo smudging, cupping, herbal remedies, manifestation and other methods of what has been commodified in the states as the multimillion dollar industry of “wellness”. Even so, when people say therapy, they are referring to talking to a professional about your problems. We tend to forget that therapy comes in many different forms from church to meditation to rest to seeing an actual psychologist. That said, it’s been around since the beginning of time.
Roach became hyperaware of his situation and in order to take care of himself he took steps to help find what he wanted in his career. I was a little messier with my journey, but I got to a point where taking care of myself became a priority. And in comedian, writer, and actor Jenny Yang‘s new Los Angeles live comedy show, Self Help Me, she interrogates the concept of self-care.
Described as “a competitive self-care comedy show”, I attended the debut of the show right shortly after I attended the “Release Your Rage” event for Beef.
It was an obnoxiously efficient day of wellness for me.
Planned as a monthly event at Dynasty Typewriter in L.A., Yang initially was going to debut the show the week before the pandemic hit. As a result, she had to put it on hold. Since that time a lot happened to Yang including the death of her father as well as two miscarriages, all of which she has been open about. This show, like comedy for many comedians, turned into an outlet for her — but it’s not a hella heavy and intense show.
Putting a different, funnier lens on self-care, Self Help Me is set up as a game show where Yang awards random points to the comedian contestants based on how they handle self-care via questions about their personal and professional lives. This included points for being vulnerable — which is a huge point-getter. The audience also gets to be involved as they give points (via their phones) to the contestants they feel are worthy of the title of “Queen of Self-Care” It became quite competitive as Dave Merheje, Sherry Cola, and Chelsea Devantez shared very personal stories while mental health professional Dr. Jas Tilghaman was on stage to help navigate the self-care of it all. With a shirtless Kevin Kreider (Bling Empire) on hand and up and a stand-up performance from up-and-coming comedian Sydnee Washington, the night ended with the crowning of Sherry Cola as “Queen of Self Care”.
After Beef and all the aggressive self-care that followed, I realized that rage — particularly of the mid-life crisis variety — can be a particularly powerful and overwhelming emotion. It’s what you direct that rage that matters most. You can either let it take over you, or you can do something with it to make you a better person.