What’s behind the Netflix show’s rapid rise to global popularity?
As an avid watcher of Korean dramas, I immediately watched Squid Game when it popped up as a suggestion on Netflix. While I binge-watched the series in two days, I was not expecting the show to become globally popular in such a short span of time and become number one in Netflix’s Top 10 watched shows in not just the United States but also in countries like Luxembourg, Iceland, Croatia, and Lebanon, amongst others. But in retrospect, I contend that it is not that surprising.
Squid Game, although a Korean drama on the face of it, is more on the lines of Netflix’s worldwide “originals” formula to produce shows that provoke, and have dystopian angles and diverse casting. The show highlights a specific genre that Netflix originals are spearheading and checks the diversity box, which is why even though the series’ director had the script ready in 2008, it wasn’t until 2019 that Netflix took interest in the story and announced its production.
Korean dramas are also notorious for barely any representation of POC and LGBTIQ+ characters, and so the casting of Indian actor Anupam Tripathi in the role of Abdul Ali is in accordance with Netflix’s efforts towards diversity and inclusion.
The plot of the show is straightforward: 456 people who have an insurmountable amount of debt are placed together to compete in games from their childhood. People who lose are immediately shot dead and there can only be one winner. The final person standing walks away with the prize money of 45.6 billion won ($38.6 million).
All the participants are gathered in a controlled environment overlooked by a masked figure and kept in check by a swarm of soldiers adorned in pink jumpsuits and masks. The larger than life sets and splashes of solid colour notwithstanding, the show is both whimsical and terrifying. The art aficionado will also be able to spot several references to surrealism.
At its core, Squid Game brings to the fore the decay in modern society and rising inequality due to overly capitalist structures and the increasing debt crisis. In 2020, the Korean film Parasite had a similar theme and won the Oscar for best picture, a first for an Asian film. The violence is also reminiscent of the 2003 film Oldboy, another Korean classic that wowed audiences.
So, Squid Game is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. The show is unfamiliar because the games depicted in the show are rooted in Korea’s culture and childhood memories of its people. The show is also familiar because, despite being unacquainted with Korean language and culture, the audience had several reference points. For instance, the masked figures reminded me of Money Heist, the competition of The Hunger Games, the dystopian hell of Okja and Platform, and the God-like figure working behind the scenes of Sacred Games.
The aforementioned films/shows have a common thread running through them; a commentary on the failures of current economic infrastructures which often drive people to extreme actions. The rising inequalities have been exacerbated by the ongoing Covid pandemic and climate change.
Thus, the themes resonate with contemporary societal concerns, and Squid Game was advantageously placed in a position where it had a high probability of becoming popular. And although shows/films like Money Heist, Platform, Okja, and The Kingdom are diverse in the sense that they hail from different countries, they are not diverse in their storytelling. In and of itself, such shows are homogenous in their plots.
And while it is heartening to see Parasite, BTS and Squid Game making headlines beyond Korea and Asia, it is important to question what constitutes “global” content and consumption.
On the content and production side, there exists an asymmetrical outflow and inflow of content, with TV shows, movies, and music from the Anglophone world dominating determining the narratives of what is good or bad content.
Cultural content from the non-Anglophone world, even though theoretically global, still struggles with worldwide distribution and often gets relegated either as mere curiosities or too difficult to understand.
On the consumption side, how willing are we as audiences to consume content that is different from our socio-cultural background? Even if Squid Game becomes the most watched show on Netflix, is it because the audience is curious to learn about Korea and Korea’s pop cultural content, or because the themes of the show are universal and hence transcend cultural differences.
I shall end this with a question for all readers to ponder: What does Squid Game mean for content from non-Anglophone countries which want to become globally popular, and the role of OTT platforms like Netflix in diversifying not only its shows, but also the viewing tastes of their audiences?
Dr Anubha Sarkar is a Lecturer in Cultural and Creative Industries at Monash University. Her PhD explored the intersection of cultural policy, commerce, and soft power in Bollywood. Her research and work cuts across several disciplines with particular interest in the creative economy, cultural and creative industries, policy, and cultural production in digital platforms of South Asia.