It is almost a year since I started this blog, and my very first post tackled the concept of hype in relation to The Wire, a rare example of a piece of entertainment that, in my view, transcended it. In that post, I outlined why I believe the idea of being “hyped” for something is really stimulating, and that you should allow yourself to hope for the best possible outcome rather than preparing yourself for the worst. That being said, it is healthy to temper one’s excitement to a certain degree, as inevitably not everything is going to live up to expectations. There have been plenty of occasions where the quality of a film, television show, album, etc., has left me underwhelmed, but on the flip side there have been times when my projections have been wildly surpassed. However, the difficulty of being able to manage expectations is that we allow voices beyond those involved in the creation of the text to influence them. Online articles, forum discussions, fan theories, and comments from friends and family partly shape our perceptions of various content, and that often renders it tough to evaluate a piece on its own terms. The weight of anticipation alternates depending on the product; huge franchises like Star Wars and Harry Potter have been so popular for so long and contain such extensive lore that any new entry in those series elicits significant attention, even before they have begun shooting. And then you have a production that emerges from obscurity and through word-of-mouth ends up becoming a global sensation.
This brings us to Squid Game, a South Korean television series on Netflix that has taken the world by storm since its release in September. If you are a subscriber of the streaming platform, you should have noticed that the programme is pinned to the homepage as, in approximately 90 countries, it has cemented itself at #1 in the top 10 most popular movies and TV show chart. What makes this achievement quite remarkable is that is an original text; other Netflix sensations like Bridgerton, The Queen’s Gambit, and The Witcher had the benefit of being adaptations of existing properties in the form of novels/video-games. While anecdotal evidence does not fully support a general notion, I only found out about Squid Game when I was browsing the streaming service and noticed that it was the #1 show in Ireland almost a week after it debuted, which I found perplexing given that I had read or heard nothing about it up until then. I then saw a few posts on Twitter from people I follow who mentioned how much they were enthralled by it, and once I read the premise, I felt compelled to delve into it.
The circumstances in which you see something undoubtedly influences your opinion of it, and upon reflection I am glad I started watching Squid Game when I did, as the level of enjoyment I got from viewing the nine-episode series was enhanced by the fact that my engagement in articles, podcasts, forum threads and general conversations revolved around it was minimal. The subsequent explosion of content surrounding the South Korean show has made me ponder whether my enthusiasm for the project would have been diminished had I held off from watching it for another couple of weeks, as it is almost impossible to go on social media or an entertainment-based website and not come across a post with some component from the series featured in it. Of course, this should not be an issue, as ideally I would be able to separate the hysteria around the show from its individual merits. However, the experience has made me contemplate the relationship between a piece of entertainment and the hype surrounding it and how it can be both healthy and harmful.
The reason I framed this dynamic around Squid Game is that I cannot recall witnessing an original piece of entertainment become embedded in the pop cultural discourse so quickly possibly since the first season of Stranger Things. It is difficult for a brand new production to capture mainstream viewers’ attention at a time when notable intellectual properties like Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe exert a near hegemonic influence over the coverage of the film and television industries. For something like Squid Game to break out, one would assume that is has to boast a terrific marketing campaign, one or two high-profile actors, and excellent feedback from critics and audiences. This series did not have any of the first two components, at least from the perspective of a viewer in the West. Marketing in the U.S. and U.K. specifically was pretty low-key prior to the release, and while certain members of the cast like Lee Jung-jae are held in high esteem in South Korea, audiences outside of Asia are likely to be unfamiliar with their work. However, the buzz the series has generated since Netflix subscribers were able to access it in full has been electric, and once you navigate through the show it is easy to notice why.
I have deliberately refrained from revealing too many plot details because I want to preserve the mystery that made my experience of watching Squid Game so enthralling, but there are certain aspects of the narrative that go some way to explaining why the programme has resonated so strongly with audiences. It combines elements of children’s entertainment, reality television, and pre-existing texts like Battle Royale to shape a compelling hook whereby a group of 456 people have to play a series of games in an attempt to win a sizeable cash prize, albeit the result of failing to complete any of these games results is quite horrific. Since the turn of the century, reality television shows like Survivor and Big Brother have drawn in millions of viewers as they are compelled to see how ordinary citizens or, in some cases, celebrities fare in a secluded environment pitted against other contestants to obtain some sort of reward. While the characters’ struggles competing in these games is not broadcast to a live audience in the show, the experience of watching them befriend and betray each other is reminiscent of watching one of these reality television programmes. There are a handful we warm to and consider trustworthy, and there are others whose selfishness is apparent from the outset, leaving us rooting for their demise.
The dynamics formed between these characters subsequently adds another layer of intrigue which helps absorb audiences: moral dilemmas. Many of us have played games like “Would you rather?”, which mostly involve debating silly scenarios but can occasionally venture into dark territory. With Squid Game, the challenges facing the contestants often force them to make tough decisions whereby one or multiple players’ deaths enhance their own chances of winning. Hwang Dong-hyuk, the writer and creator of the show, skilfully frames certain games around specific relationships to heighten the emotional stakes. Watching key figures in the show fluctuate between compassion and self-centredness inevitably leaves viewers wondering how they would handle similar situations, and thus creates a topic of conversation for them to have with others about the show.
This level of introspection is amplified by the main factor that drives many of the characters to participate in this depraved contest: debt. The prize money for winning is ₩45.6 billion prize ($38.6 million), and in the first two episodes it is obvious that individuals like Lee Jung-jae’s character Seong Gi-hun are in desperate need of income. Crucially, the series demonstrates that their lives prior to their involvement in the games are substandard, with issues ranging from ill family relatives to dysfunctional relationships, and ends up positioning the competition as potentially their only prospect of reprieve, not just from financial ruin but quotidian drudgery. The games themselves may be gruesome, unrelenting, and occasionally heartbreaking to watch, but the characters are invigorated by having the chance to fight for something in conditions that are arguably much more egalitarian than those in the real world. This feeling of revitalisation extends to the viewers, many of whom may see Squid Game as escapism from otherwise mundane lives given that it is so intense and dramatic, and yet the show encourages us to reflect upon why watching over 400 people participate in games which facilitate awful acts of violence serves as a form of respite for us.
Recommending a piece of entertainment that has become so ingrained in the public consciousness is challenging, as its allure inevitably diminishes the more content is published that revolves around it. One of my least favourite times of the year to be a film fan is awards season, as the accolades received by a movie at ceremonies like the BAFTAs or Academy Awards creates a level of expectations so high that many audience members are bound to be underwhelmed, and you end up trying to validate its quality to people who went in expecting something wildly different. The success of Squid Game pleases me given how much I enjoy seeing entertainment from outside the U.S. or U.K. receive recognition, but it is also satisfying because, even though I outlined reasons for its appeal, the show never feels as though it was designed to become Netflix’s most-watched series of all-time. The programme takes several unexpected turns that forces viewers to re-evaluate their perceptions of certain figures, its deliberate pacing enables us to development a close attachment to the characters, and it boasts an air of ambiguity that may hinder audiences from getting some form of closure regarding specific storylines, but it is appropriate given the complexity which pervades the decisions made by numerous individuals in the story. This should signify a willingness among viewers to accept riskier storytelling, but I have already noticed a handful of people on various social media platforms uploading posts which read something along the lines of: “I’m 30 minutes into Squid Game and I’m already bored. How much longer do I keep watching?” This impatience is unfortunately all too common in a world where there are so many things available online to keep users occupied that if a text does not grab someone in the first few minutes, they divert their attention away from it.
Headlines about Squid Game becoming “a global phenomenon” and “most-watched Netflix series ever” simultaneously entice viewership and also create fanciful expectations. If you go into Squid Game hoping for a gripping survival drama, you should feel satisfied by the time it has concluded. If you go in expecting a revolutionary, groundbreaking masterpiece, you are setting yourself up for disappointment, because very few things match or exceed the hyperbolic discourse surrounding them, not through any fault of their own. If we get a follow-up to Squid Game, let’s keep those expectations high, because the team behind it have earned our faith, but also measured, as it will be impossible to recreate the buzz these nine episodes did.