Arts, Culture & Entertainment

A24′s ‘Beef’ strips pretense, serves up raw emotion

Underneath a juicy vehicular feud lies well-done criticism of an appearance-driven culture and an exploration of Asian American mental health.

Split screen still of a man and a woman in their cars

If you have ever driven in Los Angeles, you have probably experienced moments of traffic-induced fury. Perhaps you have cursed at someone for honking at you or flipped a couple of birds off in response to cars cutting across four lanes of traffic without signaling — but would your fury drive you to memorize their car plate number, stalk them, and start a 10-episode-long feud that forces you to contemplate your own insecurities?

A24′s latest dramedy takes a universal experience of irrational road rage and shifts it into overdrive when two parties refuse to give it up. Amy Lau (Ali Wong), a plant entrepreneur who married into a famous art family, and Danny Cho (Steven Yeun), a haughty, beleaguered handyman, take turns trying to make each other’s lives a living hell and end up entangled in a web of mistakes.

Don’t underestimate this petty feud as frivolous drama for entertainment — every inexplicable outburst and petty clap back comes from the dark depths of one’s emotional state. Showrunner Lee Sung Jin uses the tantalizing comedy of a tit-for-tat feud as the hook for a timely character study on depression and vulnerability. Amy and Danny are two sides of the same coin — two depressed Asian Americans repressed by their own shame and society’s expectations of them.

While road rage is common, the Asian American lens it is written adds relevant cultural specificity. Confucian values stress filial piety, care for the community and social harmony. The unintended side effects are the repression of individual needs, especially regarding mental health.

Still of a woman in a car

Mental health issues are particularly taboo in many Asian cultures, where communal identity is emphasized over the individual. No matter how severe, they are seen as abnormal and deviant from social norms. From the community’s perspective, someone with mental health concerns is perceived as a communal failure to support or rehabilitate them. With Asian Americans, the model minority myth has added to this pressure of appearing perfect. Asian Americans are found to be half as likely to seek professional help for mental health compared to the general population and the least likely out of all ethnic groups. The recent shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, in particular, have spotlighted the catastrophic consequences of such care gaps in Asian American communities and their seniors.

Amy and Danny’s desperate pursuits of success on behalf of their families create immense pressure on them. Their respective roles as an absent working mother and an elder brother force them to hide stress behind pained smiles and twitches of anger. Fumes of negative emotions billow inside their minds, and the road incident sparks the unending spiral of revenge to expel their rage.

Still of a man with red and blue lights

Wong and Yeun’s performances and chemistry form the emotional backbone of the series. They draw laughs for their maniacal ploys against one another but also sympathy as they struggle to keep others happy. Their unhealthy pursuit of material success and their feud leads them down a tragic rabbit hole of deepening trouble. Through their eyes and frustrations, “Beef” criticizes a mercenary culture driven by appearances and a lack of genuine care.

Through well-rounded supporting characters who carry their own insecurities, “Beef” validates our unsaid insecurities and shows how we let them drive our bad decisions. When we let our insecurities take over, we contribute to a culture where being vulnerable to one’s own failings is taboo. Every character’s insecurities drive a vicious cycle of pretense. By the end of the series, we witness the catastrophic consequences of bottling it all up. But we also can consider the restorative power of being vulnerable to one another in a contemplative, typical A24 ending.

Portraying every character in their flawed yet vulnerable states, “Beef” leaves us with a thought. If we accept that everyone has individual vulnerabilities, then perhaps we should not be too ashamed of our own flaws and instead be more forgiving of ourselves and each other.

“Beef” is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Mental health resources:

Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 988

Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health Hotline: (800) 854-7771

Pacific Asian American Counseling Services for Los Angeles