Arts & Entertainment

Review: Netflix’s ‘Beef’ overshadowed by actor controversy

The widely-acclaimed, fan-favorite dramedy has drawn criticism after an offensive podcast clip resurfaced.

Video by Netflix via YouTube | BEEF Official Trailer
Poster by Netflix | “Beef” series poster

A week after the premiere of Netflix’s “Beef,” the dark comedy had swiftly proven its chops to critics and general audiences alike. The show offers a nuanced portrayal of the consequences of stigmatizing mental healthcare, through an entertaining story about road rage and revenge. With a talented, majority Asian American cast, led by Ali Wong and Steven Yeun, the show also tackles the complexities of second-generation immigrant experiences.

But for some, that high came crashing down when a video clip resurfaced on Twitter which quickly took over the online discourse surrounding the show. The controversy centers around David Choe, who is best known as a visual artist, but acts in the show as a pivotal side character (additionally, he painted the works of art displayed during the title sequence of each episode). The clip from 2014 shows Choe telling a horrendous story on his now-defunct podcast, in which he purportedly admitted to sexually assaulting a Black masseuse. 

When the podcast episode first aired, those aware of it criticized Choe. At worst, he is a rapist and admitted to it, and at best he trivialized a serious issue while engaging in misogynoir. Choe released a statement apologizing, claiming that the story was completely fabricated, and that his mode of storytelling involved trying to provoke his co-host and guests. 

In the near-decade since this clip originated, Choe has been hired to paint high-profile murals, had a small role in “The Mandalorian,” and even created (with his own funds) “The Choe Show,” in which he interviewed celebrities while painting portraits of them. With all of this leading up to his casting in the critically-acclaimed “Beef,” it’s hard to see any true consequences for his harsh, inexcusable words.

My initial thought when I heard about the controversy–relief that it wasn’t one of the two leads–is representative of a common desire to sweep controversy under the rug. For some time I agreed with those who felt bad for Wong and Yeun, seeing that, as executive producers, they were criticized for allowing Choe to be cast in the first place. 

But criticism does not equal harassment. Fans and critics have a right to be angry about the decision to cast Choe, considering the harm being spread by his words. There will always be people on the internet who take things too far, but there is still validity to the majority of complaints being lobbied. 

Some would say that those who are offended need to try harder at separating the art from the artist. My feelings on this idea tend to shift depending on the medium, how artistically involved the offender is and the severity of the offense in question. If it’s a single actor in an ensemble cast, it’s usually easy enough to look past and try to enjoy the show or film. This particular situation shows the cracks in that line of thinking. 

In reading more about this controversy, it became apparent that Wong and Yeun are friends with Choe. When “Beef” creator Lee Sung Jin saw him in “The Choe Show,” he asked Wong and Yeun to see if Choe would submit an audition tape. While Lee argues that this was a matter of casting the best person for the role, and many would see it as successful networking, others have derided it as stunt-casting or even nepotism. 

When FX was considering picking up “The Choe Show,” Disney warned its subsidiary that Choe was a controversial person. That didn’t stop FX from picking it up and airing it on Hulu. It’s implausible to think that Netflix didn’t flag Choe similarly when he was cast in “Beef.” 

Photo by Netflix | Ali Wong and Steven Yeun star as feuding road ragers in “Beef.”

About a week after the controversy broke, Lee, Wong and Yeun finally released a joint statement addressing the matter on April 21.

“We’re aware David has apologized in the past for making up this horrific story, and we’ve seen him put in the work to get the mental health support he needed over the last decade to better himself and learn from his mistakes,” reads a portion of the statement they made to Variety. 

Many fans of the show were disappointed by this statement, voicing on Twitter that it failed to substantially address the issue. Some declared that it was too little, too late. Others saw it as rich, famous people trying to protect their rich, famous friend. It was nigh impossible to find a single person defending their statement. 

The season finale of “Beef”–which may be the series finale, if it remains a limited series as originally intended–ends on a surreal, reflective note. Perhaps it was the absence of Choe’s character, but I found it much more satisfying and thematically-relevant than the explosive action of the penultimate episode. But the longer I sit with my feelings about the show, the larger Choe’s shadow looms. 

No matter your personal opinion on this subject, the fact remains that we live in an age in which viewers are holding Hollywood to a higher standard. Audiences are growing more comfortable standing up for their feelings and beliefs. Even if one doesn’t believe it’s fair for Lee, Wong and Yeun to be criticized, others will disagree, because they were in the position to stop harm from spreading. Situations like the one with Choe have the potential to overshadow amazing works of art. It’s a shame, but not as shameful as platforming and protecting perpetrators of harm.