Beef’s crazy poor Asians—but does it have to be 10 eps?

The characters are multilayered and the actors play them with gusto

Beef official poster

Netflix’s miniseries Beef kicks off with a road rage incident. Two motorists are involved, one in a battered Toyota Tacoma pick-up truck, the other in a BMW SUV. Naturally, each party puts a label on his road foe and it’s based on the type of vehicle he drives. For the pick-up driver, the BMW driver is a rich and stuck-up bully. For the BMW driver, the pick-up driver is a crass and uneducated bully, and a lousy driver.  The dispute is about to become a class war.

Neither one is aware what his enemy looks like.  The man in the pickup is Danny (played by Steven Yuen), a Korean-American whose construction business is in the red.  He’s got the license plate number of the BMW. But he’s unaware that his adversary is a woman and also Asian American.  Her name is Amy (Ali Wong).

Unlike Danny, Amy seems to be living the American dream. She resides in a showcase of a house in Los Angeles. She owns a successful business and is married to a good-looking Japanese-American. They have a sweet little daughter and yes, she drives a BMW SUV. Yet she feels incomplete. Adding to her misery is the fact that a business deal that would make her financially independent may not push through.

Thus their vastly different worlds figuratively collide when their cars nearly literally collide. The traffic altercation marks the beginning of a protracted feud that would profoundly affect the lives of their respective families.

 In today’s world, it’s easy to search for a person, and Danny locates the address of Amy. Posing as a plumber, he proceeds to urinate on the floor of her bathroom. Amy later retaliates by spray painting Danny’s pickup with obscenities. The battle of wits rages on and Amy’s husband and daughter, as well as Danny’s younger brother, end up as collateral damage.

Written and created by Lee Sung Jin, Beef is based on his actual experience with a BMW-driving motorist at an intersection in LA. When the light turned green the driver in the BMW behind him started honking non-stop. The writer was merely annoyed and no road rage occurred.  He just went on to write a 10-episode miniseries about it.

I think 10 episodes are too long for any miniseries. John Huston managed to adapt the first 22 chapters of the Book of Genesis into a film that clocked in at just under three hours. So what more can you tell about these two hotheaded drivers? The first four episodes aren’t that compelling, so many characters are introduced from both sides of the boxing ring, and each has one’s own beef.

The show gets moving by the fifth episode, when the layers are peeled and the facade of each protagonist crumbles. All these happen as repercussions of the continuing row between Danny and Amy. So it’s revealed that Amy’s hostile mother-in-law is really on her side and her gracious neighbor is a scheming, jealous vixen.  On Danny’ side, it is revealed that his church-going friends aren’t as wholesome as they seem. Each revelation is presented in various situations and they could be funny, while others can be quite touching.

Beef is an effective depiction of the frustrations we endure as we try to reach for that perfect life we see in magazines, TV, and social media. It’s also a lengthy and elaborate boy-meets-girl and girl-hates-boy kind of romcom. You know the drift: boy and girl start off on the wrong foot, but you know they’re going to have a happy ending. (I think I’m giving away too much.)

But the characters are multilayered and the actors play them with gusto. The one sore point is the single major Caucasian role of this epic. This time the Caucasian is stereotyped. Maria Bello plays a wealthy virago who uses her power to manipulate Amy. Bello isn’t given enough scathing lines to make an impact. It would probably take a Michelle Pfeiffer or Glenn Close to make the role work.

Unlike the Coen brothers, however, the plot of Beef is told unimaginatively

Likewise, the workman-like direction doesn’t help the show. What Beef lacks is a certain atmosphere that can make an ideal setting for the plot’s dark, funny premise. The series encompasses various film genres. It’s part satire, part psychological drama, and part gross-out comedy.  It may be the Asian version of the idiosyncratic films of Ethan and Joel Coen, whose works include such violent yet dark amusing movies as No Country for Old Men and Fargo. Unlike those of the Coen brothers, however, the plot of Beef is told unimaginatively. An off-kilter way of telling the story could have made it more intriguing, and the fantastic plot more viable.

Beef does give us a new perspective on every vehicle that jockeys for space during rush hour. Every car and motorcycle has its own story to tell. So the next time somebody cuts you, don’t get mad. Just imagine: the man on the bike would probably be fired if he’s late for work again (and his wife is about to give birth to their 11th child). Also pity the woman who sideswiped you. She’s so frantic her diarrhea may have already ruined the leather seat of her Audi.

Read more:

Jun Lana’s clever work a must-see

Ten Little Mistresses aims for camp at the expense of charm

How Dolly de Leon steals the show; Cate Blanchett, as usual, is at her finest

The Fablemans is Steven Spielberg’s valentine to himself

About author


He is a freelance writer of lifestyle and entertainment, after having worked in Philippine broadsheets and magazines.

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