Squid Game is now the biggest show on Netflix, hell, probably the biggest TV show in the world. The streamer revealed on Tuesday that the death game series has garnered 111 million views. That, apparently, is a lot more than Bridgerton, which was in the 82 million+ range. Looks like a violent thriller beats out bodice-ripper romance.
Even bearing in mind that Netflix counts any subscribers who streamed Squid Game for just 2 minutes before switching away as a view, 111 million is a lot. The big question is, why is Squid Game the most-viewed – and written about – series in the world right now?
Squid Game is a series in the death game genre. It traps a group of poor people in an arena to compete in a game where the winner wins a shitload of money. The loser gets killed. There is no middle ground. The games are childish games that every Korean child grew up knowing, now recontextualized into life-or-death situations. The death game is not a new genre. It's been around for decades, and this particular flavour has been popular in Japanese and Korean comics and video games since 2010 with the video game Danganronpa, which spawned 3 sequels and an anime adaptation. There's a Japanese series called Alice in Borderland on Netflix, adapted from a manga, about a group of teenagers transported to a mysterious world where they have to play games and win to survive.
All stories are thought experiments, and death game stories double down on the thought experiment. They ask "What if a group of people is brought together to play a game for high stakes? Would they help each other or reveal the darkest parts of the human soul and screw each other over to win?" The death game is a commentary on the human condition. The genre was previously aimed at teens, featuring high schoolers as the heroes and players. What sets Squid Game apart is its adult characters and commentary on class warfare and its sadistic cliffhangers that keep the viewer hooked. How are the hero and his friends going to escape that death trap? Will he win the money? How much of his soul will he have to lose to survive and win? The story becomes an allegory on the exploitation and struggles in late capitalism where everyone who's not part of the 1% is a serf, trapped to be playthings of the rich.
This being a K-drama, Squid Game just has to go that extra mile in its emotions, melodrama & sadistic violence. There's masochism in watching the series and empathizing with the characters and their struggles and experience the loss of likable characters who lose and the catharsis of the continued survival of the hero. Every character playing the game has a reason that trapped them there: they're poor, in debt & desperate for a win that will lift them out of poverty and change their lives. The last year of lockdown and economic hardship has primed just about everyone on the planet for relating to Squid Game. It's the same reason Parasite was a hit movie worldwide, to the point where it won an Oscar. Class warfare as a theme and genre is a huge seller, no matter how much Hollywood tries to ignore and deny it. Trying to make more nice and positive fare like Ted Lasso is all well and good, but nothing is beating the harsh truths of Squid Game. Audiences can't get enough of it. 111 million viewers prove that, even if some of them only watched for 2 minutes.
Class warfare and insanely addictive cliffhangers are a killer combination. Resistance is useless. We are all living in Squid Game (which is streaming on Netflix)