Not If Representation Matters, But How and When It Matters
I know I’m behind the zeitgeist on this one, but I really liked Beef, Netflix’s recent eight-episode series starring Steven Yeun and Ali Wong. I found it to be inventive and consistently surprising. It’s impeccably cast, the production values and acting quality are outstanding throughout, and it’s a rare show that allows its characters to really get dirty and reveal themselves to be bad people. I think the ending may have fallen into sentimentality a little bit too hard, robbing a little bit from that dynamic of depicting genuinely unsympathetic protagonists, but overall I thought this was a daring and sharp show anchored by great performances.
It’s also a triumph of diversity and representation, if that’s your thing. Something like 90% of the cast is made up of actors of Asian descent. And the diversity isn’t set dressing, either; the show is all about the Asian-American experience - that’s the Asian-American experience, specifically, not simply an Asian experience, which is something different. Without ever delivering lectures, Beef dramatizes a particular experience of being Asian in the United States, and particularly in Los Angeles, demonstrating both the connections the characters have to more traditional elements of culture and the deep ambivalence they share about them. I personally don’t have the experience necessary to comment on whether that depiction is authentic, but a lot of Asian American critics have praised the portrayal. The show’s three biggest characters, Ali Wong’s Amy Lau, Steven Yeun’s Danny Cho, and Amy’s husband George are of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese descent, respectively, and the differences in those backgrounds are conveyed subtly and effectively. Both generational and class divides are understood both on their own merits and also as reflected by and in racial and ethnic lenses. This show is everything people who complain about representation have been asking for.
And if the show wasn’t good, none of it would mean anything.