On the propulsive new Netflix series Beef, an incident of mutual road rage sets off a rivalry between an economically embattled contractor and a well-to-do plant business owner. It also initiates a new understanding of class in the art world that ends up impacting just about everyone around them.
At first, the art on the show melts into the background. Speckled, ridged ceramics can be seen in the Los Angeles store managed by Amy Lau Nakai (Ali Wong), whose minimalist pedestals hold these works alongside neatly trimmed shrubs. The ceramics are by her husband George (Joseph Cho), himself the descendant of an artist with serious art-world clout, a nepo baby as it were.
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George’s sculptures hang in the background at first, as though they were nothing but Ken Price–like window dressing. (Per Netflix, the ceramics were produced by the in-house art department.) Then, by the show’s halfway point, these creations are at the center of Beef, the first five episodes of which were reviewed for this article.
An attempt to steal the ceramics by those in the orbit of Danny Cho (Steven Yeun), the contractor whose truck Amy nearly hits with her SUV, ends up bringing these blobby artworks to the forefront. Two of Danny’s cousin’s friends enter Amy’s darkened home to steal one work by George recalling reddish slugs sliding over one another. “It’s on some Beetlejuice shit,” one says. “It looks like herpes poopooed,” the other responds.
George’s mother, Fumi (Patti Yasutake), winds up accidentally bearing witness to this heist because she is in her son’s house to take something of her own: a highly valuable mint-colored chair created by her late husband. The form of the chair, known as a Tamago, was based on the shape of her backend, and she plans to sell the the stylish seat to dig his estate out of debt. No surprise here: neither theft goes as planned.
At the core of Beef is an interest in how difficult it is to be successful in the US and how easy it is for all that success to implode when life intervenes. In Lee Sung Jin’s show, artworks—gleaming, rarefied objects that sell for exorbitant prices—end up being the locus for all these anxieties surrounding stability and class.
Witness a scene in which Amy and George have an argument at a show of 65 chairs arrayed around a gallery. George accidentally makes a remark that threatens to undo a deal nearly struck between Amy’s store and Jordan, a Gwyneth Paltrow–like entrepreneur played by Maria Bello. The couple begins bickering in hushed tones in this clinically lit art space.
“You are obsessed with money. That’s all you ever talk about anymore,” George says.
“George, I didn’t grew up the way you did,” Amy snaps back. “Did you ever notice how it’s only people who have money who think money isn’t important? You know the Buddha is only the Buddha because he was a prince first, right? He had stuff to renounce!” Later, she says, “We can’t renounce because all your dad left us is tables and chairs.”
Feeling exhausted from this conversation, Amy plops down on a plainspoken chair. A white guard comes over and scolds her for sitting on the art. She swiftly gets up and apologizes. Not even an object meant to provide support can offer her much comfort.
If art is commonly thought to provide aesthetic pleasure, it provides little in the way of visual nourishment for characters on Beef, who are often too busy trying to get by to pore over abstract sculptures. This can at times recall the way that the grifters of Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 film Parasite think about a scholar’s rock. At first, the object is treated as something to be contemplated—a metaphor, even. Then, by that film’s end, the metaphor comes down on someone’s head and gets used as a weapon in a larger class struggle.
At one point in Beef, Danny visits George and Amy’s home in an attempt to find ways to take vengeance on Amy. George has met Danny while biking, but he has no idea who this man really is. George puts Danny on the spot, asking Danny to explain what he thinks of the ceramics around the house.
“I don’t know if this is right, but it kind of makes me feel sad,” Danny says. “It gives me a sticky feeling inside, like in my chest, my legs. I don’t know, I’m just going off the top of my head.” As he fumbles his way through this impromptu critique, Danny seems less interested in speaking thoughtfully than he does in simply getting out of there unscathed.
Beef’s big art-related secret, if it can be said to have one, is that its cast includes an artist: David Choe, who plays Danny’s cousin, the mastermind behind the heist of George’s art. He’s done murals for Facebook’s headquarters, and he even had an FX TV series of his own, The David Choe Show, which the New York Times once described as “part interview, part performance art and part therapy session.”
Choe’s paintings of mangled, abstracted bodily forms appear in the title cards for every episode of Beef. They appear and disappear before audiences can make much sense of what relation they bare to each of the show’s installments. Appropriately for a show that is about who really gets to contemplate and love art, the series provides its viewers with brief glimpses of Choe’s art before quickly snatching it away.