Lee Sung Jin’s “Beef” Destroys the Model Minority Myth
12 Things to Know and Why You Need to Re-Watch It Immediately
There’s vibing with a show, representation-wise, then there’s “Beef”. Lee Sung Jin is the creator of the Netflix top hit which has shaken awake a generation that came of age in the 90s. We’ve blinked and now suddenly our hits are on the oldies station and most of us are well into a not-so-ideal adulthood. How did this happen?
Bingeing “Beef” was a surreal experience that felt all too familiar and left me wondering: was Lee Sung Jin once a member of my own childhood church, or SAT prep class? Was he one stool over on one of my nights of questionable decision-making in K-Town? Considering how spot-on the series’ location scenes are, the answer is a solid “maybe”.
Among the many wonders of this series are the brilliant Asian-specific details that manage to feel so universal. Full of deeply profound and stereotype-busting moments of human fallibility, the characters portray the Asian American experience more wholly than I ever remember seeing on television. Love, hate, frustration, and dissatisfaction are felt deeply and passionately as the characters are seen for their authentic selves. Model minorities are nowhere to be seen.
One month in and “Beef” is still in Netflix’s Top 10. The dark comedy was initially pitched as a limited series but Lee has been vocal about wanting to continue Danny (Steven Yeun) and Amy (Ali Wong)’s story. So do your part toward greenlighting more seasons and re-watch this eerily specific, brilliant manifestation of Asian American life.
In case you need a nudge, here are 12 things about “Beef” and Lee Sung Jin that might spur you to watch or rewatch the show. A peek behind the curtain, if you will, at the Creator of this raging tour de force.
1. The 90s Soundtrack is Killer
Lee always had very specific songs in mind. Without question, his well-timed needle drops immeasurably heightened the emotions in scenes throughout the entire series. Underpinning the notion that both leads were trapped in the past, Lee mined songs from his own formative years. “Oh simple thing, where have you gone…” (episode 7).
Lee never imagined that he would get permission to use all the songs he wanted. But he did. Every single one. In two instances, he personally pled his case to Hoobastank and Fred Durst. “I wrote a very long, passionate email about how much the song meant to me.” Luckily, the wooing worked.
2. Steven Yeun’s Praise Game is Beyond
It’s been widely publicized that Lee’s own road rage experience sparked the making of “Beef”. (And that both Lee and Yeun went to Korean churches growing up.) But Steven Yeun actually belting out the praise songs is an unexpected treat. Fun fact: the praise team in the series is from a real Pasadena church led by Lee’s college best friend, Jason Min. (His brother, Justin Min, is Edwin on “Beef”.)
3. Beef’s Musicality Astonished a Grammy-winning Producer
On the podcast “Fun with Dumb”, Lee recounts that Beef’s sound producer (who’s worked with the likes of Beyonce and Adele) was “blown away” by the group’s performance. After a “f*cking perfect” first take, the producer asked Lee if all Korean church bands are “like this”. Lee’s answer: “kinda, yeah”. 100%.
4. Ivy League? Check. Investment Banking? Not So Much
Like many KA households, Lee’s parents drilled in a very narrow definition of success. Doctor, lawyer, banker. Done. Armed with a 1560 on his SATs, Lee majored in Economics at the University of Pennsylvania with an eye toward a career in investment banking. After graduation, however, Lee stepped off his pre-approved path to follow his creative muses “with no real plan”, except to load up his car and head north. In his first week in New York, all his earthly possessions were stolen out of his Honda CRV. But there was no turning back.
5. Lee Sung Jin Knows Korea and America
Lee was born in Korea, moved to the States at nine months old, then proceeded to live in four cities in three states (IL, MN and LA). Then came another move and from 3rd to 5th grade, Lee lived back in Korea. But the family returned to Minnesota because Lee was “getting beat like everyday” across the hands with “a really thick stick” by his teachers. Not a ruler. Nope. “A really thick stick”. That proved to be a little too Korean for his parents.
6. Lee’s Journey Back to His Given Name
Sick of his American teachers mispronouncing his Korean name in middle school, Sung Jin Lee told people to call him, “Sonny”. And it stuck. “Sonny Lee” was how he took his early writing credits. But he decided to switch back to “Lee Sung Jin” several years ago, putting his last name first as is the tradition in his homeland of Korea. “I think with a lot of therapy and a lot of self-reflection, I’ve slowly started to become more comfortable in my own skin.”
7. Before Hollywood, Lee Wanted to be a Musician
Lee considers music to be his “first love” and aspired to be a professional musician. (While at Penn, he sang a cappella in a group and auditioned for O-Town.) In addition to singing, Lee can also play the violin, guitar and piano. He briefly interned at an indie music label while playing gigs in NYC with his band.
8. Lee Shows Us the Power of Vulnerability
Though we are shown a full spectrum of emotions between Danny and Amy, mostly in the neighborhood of rage, the feud between the two reveals the freeing possibilities of what can happen after we are seen at our absolute worst. Lee Sung Jin said in an interview, “There’s a really good Ram Dass quote that says, ‘We’re all just walking each other home.’ And I think that feeling is probably something that we’re trying to capture.”
9. A Beef-y Reunion Creates Television Magic
Lee and Yeun were friends long before “Beef” and Lee, Yeun and Wong all worked on “Tuca & Bertie”. Although “Beef” is Lee’s first turn as a showrunner, he’s been a writer and producer for over a decade. So it makes sense that most of the cast and crew were drawn from collaborations on his past shows such as: ”Undone”, “Dave”, “Silicon Valley” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”. In the spirit of keeping a good thing going, Lee, Yeun and Jake Schreier (who directed six “Beef” episodes) will reunite on Marvel’s “Thunderbolts”, with Schreier directing and Lee re-writing the script.
10. The Finale’s Home Invasion Was Originally Much Bloodier
Given how gruesome this scene actually turned out to be, it might be hard to imagine but earlier scripts had a much higher body count. Looking back, Lee appreciates that Schreier and studio executives nudged him to pull it back. Lee won’t say who was eventually spared but “just think of a name and they’re probably dead” [in early drafts].
11. Lee Directed the Finale From Home, with Covid
Helped by Schreier, who was on set, Lee directed the finale from home while sick with Covid. “My assistant was walking around [set] with my face on an iPad and I was just like, ‘Yeah, that looks good’… I’m very happy with how it turned out.” (The “Beef” finale was Lee’s first time directing.)
12. A Sickening Lie Shouldn’t Overshadow “Beef”
Did Lee, Yeun and Wong (as Executive Producers) respond too slowly (three days later) to the explosion of their friend David Choe (Isaac)’s re-earthed, gross, fabricated story about sexually assaulting someone in 2014? Yes. Should Choe have apologized again, publically, (for the third time) for making up this horrific story? Yes, if for no other reason than to take some heat off his friends. At the end of the day should a fictional account of sexual assault diminish Beef’s accomplishments? I don’t think so.