Netflix’s “Beef” explores tragically realistic pursuit of modern-day happiness


Image used with permission from Netflix

Netflix’s “Beef” grips viewers with its storyline, excellent acting and its raw portrayal of the struggles of its two Asian American leads, amassing nearly universal acclaim. Since its release, it has garnered rave reviews and premiered as one of Netflix’s most-viewed series, clocking in nearly 172 million total viewership hours as of April 30, according to Netflix.

Jaden Gardiola, Culture Editor: Online

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 It all starts with a middle finger. Or, rather, it all starts when lead Danny Cho almost backs into the side of Amy Lau’s white SUV, prompting her to flip her middle finger in Danny’s direction. What follows is a two-minute road rage sequence between the central anti-heroes, earning the show its American TV-MA rating.

What may seem to be a sharp, one-off dispute between two drivers, as well as the formation of an immediate distaste for both of the main characters, is actually the inception of 10 episodes of thought-provoking, crime-ridden, revenge-driven and sexually explicit action between Danny, Amy and their close circle of family and friends.

However, the heart of the show ironically lies not in the dynamics of anger, but in what it means to truly be happy and why achieving such a thing is so difficult in the modern world. As told through the lens of two second-generation Asian immigrants living in Southern California, notably the U.S. state with the largest population of Asian Americans according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the fictitious series presents an intriguingly realistic perspective on the difficulties one must go through, particularly minorities, in life’s frantic pursuit of happiness.

The story begins as Danny, played by Steven Yeun, lines up at a hardware store looking to return hibachi grills closely following an attempt to commit suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. His mangled relationship with his brother Paul, in addition to his struggles to bring his parents to the U.S. from South Korea, cause him to question his life’s worth as his income dwindles from his contracting business. 

Conversely, Amy, played by Ali Wong, seemingly leads the perfect life – she has a loving husband and daughter and is a wealthy entrepreneur with a budding business set to make millions of dollars. But, her work consumes her, soaking up each waking minute of her day and restricting her from the most important people in her life, creating separation within her family. 

It is the striking realism of the seemingly endless complications Danny and Amy have to face in order to be happy that truly hits home.

It is the striking realism of the seemingly endless complications Danny and Amy have to face in order to be happy that truly hits home. In Danny’s case, it’s his wanting to reconnect with his brother and to make his parents proud that is overshadowed by the complications of his unemployment, which includes multiple run-ins with law enforcement alongside his convicted cousin, Issac. 

In Amy’s case, it’s the multiple setbacks she faces with her business that prevent her from spending more time with her family, fracturing her relationship with her husband, resulting in his infidelity. For both of them, their violent rivalry gets in the way of their objectives and sets each of them back considerably from seeing their goals come to fruition. 

As an Asian-American, I’ve found that from a representation standpoint, this show is nothing short of groundbreaking. The fact that the majority of the show’s ensemble cast was of East Asian descent is extremely refreshing. Not only were minority actors given a large platform to showcase their immense talent, but the show was also able to portray East Asian cultures in a heartfelt manner. 

I’m grateful as an audience member to witness an increased volume of talent with roots from around the globe gaining the platforms they deserve to dutifully flaunt their abilities. I am proud, as that same audience member, to see such platforms and stories that aren’t willing to shy away from the harshness of life – to see such talent showcased through such a medium is often more rewarding than any happy-go-lucky story. Rather than seeing everything work out all the time, which is good in a healthy dose, the realness of seeing people who you can relate to on a cultural level go through hardship makes that story so much more impactful. In this way, “Beef” exceeds all expectations.

I am proud, as that same audience member, to see such platforms and stories that aren’t willing to shy away from the harshness of life – to see such talent showcased through such a medium is often more rewarding than any happy-go-lucky story.

In the 2006 film “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Chris Gardner, played by Will Smith, shows his son the sweet fruits of perseverance and resilience as they walk the hills of San Francisco. While it’s important to tell the feel-good stories of success against the odds, it’s also important to acknowledge the failures that people endure. I’ve seen no television show that showcases the hardship of failure, as well as the expected maturity to deal with it, other than “Beef.” The show’s heart-shattering ending is layered with wrongdoings and consequences, yet, it is still topped off with acceptance and embracement of the tragedy.

While seemingly lazy and incomplete at first, the show’s final shot of both Amy and Danny embracing in a hospital bed tells the viewer everything they need to know about what comes next for these characters: they are just going to have to carry on through the hardship. And while both Amy and Danny’s quest for contentment may seem incomplete and unfulfilled, the beauty of the ending is that its purpose is to communicate to the viewer that happiness is not something people get to feel all the time, and that is okay. The brutal nature of the message only allows it to resonate more with the audience.

I initially came to “Beef” for the intriguingly immature “prank war” plot. I stayed throughout for the striking visuals and wonderfully contemporary writing. I left with a new perspective on what it is like being an adult in the real world. I knew the show was fictitious and yet it all presented itself vibrantly real. Perhaps I can attribute that to the magic of the silver screen, or maybe it’s because the eponymous “Beef” had a secret ingredient I just can’t fathom that made it incredible.

 “There’s always something,” says Danny Cho, just seconds before nearly backing into the side of Amy Lau’s white SUV. If there’s anything I learned from this show, it’s that Danny was nothing short of correct. 

Grade: A | Too Long; Didn’t Read – Simultaneously funny, heartbreaking, action-packed and thought-provoking, “Beef” is definitely worth the watch.


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