Hugh Linehan: Squid Game’s success is good news for all of us

Netflix’s dystopian drama series shows originality can still trump franchise power

Squid Game: It’s the one in which 456 debt-enslaved contestants risk their lives in a series of children’s playground games in order to win a cash prize

Squid Game: It’s the one in which 456 debt-enslaved contestants risk their lives in a series of children’s playground games in order to win a cash prize

 

We live in an atomised world. The one-to-many mass media model of the past is now over, replaced by a constellation of niches ad bubbles. Nobody will ever sell as many albums as Michael Jackson did. Families will never again huddle in front of a single flickering screen to share the same primetime experience.

Some of this is true, although the argument is overstated. Mass media phenomena still exist, in the form of branded superhero franchises and a handful of pop megastars. But, below that relatively thin and highly engineered superstratum, a fragmentation has indeed taken place and the idea of popular culture as a widely shared set of common experiences has long been in decline.

Phenomenal success

So what should we make of the phenomenal success of Squid Game? Netflix’s dystopian drama series, in which 456 debt-enslaved contestants risk their lives in a series of children’s playground games in order to win a cash prize, has broken all the streamer’s audience records since its release just over a month ago.

The numbers are eye-watering. According to Netflix, in the four weeks following its release on September 17th, the nine-part Korean series had been seen by 142 million households across the world, dwarfing the previous record of 82 million held by Regency-as-Gen-Z bodice-ripper Bridgerton.

Bloomberg News reports that, “based on viewer data”, Squid Game has already generated $900 million in value. The show itself cost only $21.4 million to produce.

The show’s success represents a vindication of Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos’s stated aim of commissioning more from outside the Hollywood Anglosphere. We can expect that the success of that project, initially framed as a quest to find a non-American equivalent of Netflix’s earlier hit Stranger Things, to lead to further investment in original drama from around the world. Korea, which has been on a roll for years as a producer of critically acclaimed cinema and wildly successful popular music, can anticipate that its already impressive global cultural footprint will grow further.

Knotty moral dilemmas

There’s plenty to celebrate here. First of all, Squid Game is excellent. Yes, it’s gory and its plot teeters at times on the verge of ridiculousness. But it’s also highly original, thought-provoking and unpredictable. With a cinematic sensibility featuring stylistic nods to Stanley Kubrick, gripping performances by an ensemble cast that includes some of Korea’s biggest stars, knotty moral dilemmas (just wait for Episode 6) and kinetic, shocking violence, it is, despite clear antecedents acknowledged by writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk in Japanese pop culture, very much its own thing.

The portrayal of the toxic effect of debt anxiety has its roots in Hwang’s own experience of life in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash

One clear sign of the show’s impact can be seen in the incessant news coverage it has generated across all media in recent weeks. Everyone wants a bit of the Squid Game action. Inevitably, concerns have been raised about its impact on children (it’s classified for over-15s). There’s been an interesting debate on the shortcomings of the subtitling and dubbing processes involved in translating the original into more than 30 other languages.

And an unexpected byproduct of the series’ success is that many of us now know a little bit more about the particular strains, insecurities and injustices of South Korean society (an angle which the country’s erstwhile neighbours across the demilitarised zone in North Korea have been keen to emphasise). They can add this to what they gleaned from last year’s Oscar-winning Parasite, which featured a similarly acidic portrait of the country’s wealth divide. The portrayal of the toxic effect of debt anxiety has its roots in Hwang’s own experience of life in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, but its relevance echoes well beyond northeast Asia.

“Outwardly, Korean entertainment seems to be doing very well,” Hwang told variety this week. “But South Korean society is also very competitive and stressful. We have 50 million people in a small place. And, cut off from the continent of Asia by North Korea, we have developed an island mentality. Some of that stress is carried over in the way that we are always preparing for the next crisis. In some ways it is a motivator. It helps us ask what more should be done. But such competition also has side effects.”

Choppy waters

For Netflix, currently experiencing choppy waters over alleged transphobic slurs in the latest special from comedian Dave Chappelle, and facing increased competition from Disney and other streamers, the last three months of 2021 offer an opportunity to restate its position as the default choice among competing entertainment platforms. A firehose of big-budget entertainment is promised by the company between now and Christmas. Happily, Squid Game proves that when it comes to winning the streaming wars, creative storytelling is more important than A-list names.

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