MF 358 : What is Squid Game and what it means for Netflix and viewers
Updated: Jun 16
"Once you tap the squid’s head, you win and yell out, “Victory.” At that moment, I felt as if I owned the entire world, exhilarated.” -Squid Game (I wouldn't be surprised if this was also said by someone at Netflix)
My introduction to Korean drama ("K drama") is a long and circuitous route. Much like the show Squid Game, it came out of left field. Growing up, my parents would rent dramas from a Korean grocery store that had a small VHS section. Think of it as a "bodega Blockbuster video." They would watch serialized shows, ranging from historical period pieces to melodramatic soaps set in modern day Seoul. These dramas were the backdrop of many evenings and weekends in my household growing up.
It wasn't until later that I started paying closer attention. A few years ago, I watched several Korean films and series on Amazon Prime. I enjoyed watching these with my dad who more than paid his dues, indulging my childhood repeat watches of Superman and Star Wars. We would watch these programs in the original Korean with English subtitles and both of us enjoyed the experience. Thankfully, I was introduced to the joy of subtitled films, starting with Italy's Cinema Paradiso, years ago during a film appreciation course at Oxford the summer following my junior year in college.
More recently, I've explored Korean entertainment offerings on my own, starting with Train to Busan (2016), which I covered on the summer movie series. That was my gateway, so to speak, that led me to discover Squid Game, which dropped on Netflix last month.
The show seemed to appear out of nowhere, and with little media fanfare. There was no major social media blast and Netflix didn't do a heavy promo of it. It simply popped up on September 17, 2021. Then, a funny thing happened. It shot to number one.
Seeing the odd name and avatar, featuring one its stars clad in a futuristic looking tracksuit, I was mildly intrigued but not enough to do more than scan through the synopsis. However, my curiosity grew as the show stayed at the number one spot throughout its debut week. Having just finished three seasons of the excellent Manifest, and chomping at the bit for Cobra Kai's upcoming fourth season, I was looking for another great binge.
The following weekend, I decided to give Squid Game a try. I started on Friday, September 24th with episode one. The first act resembled a standard K-drama with a family-centric story. However, around the middle of the episode, the show took a very unexpected turn. By the end of the episode, I was hooked and joined these characters on a windy, dark, and crazy nine-episode journey. I finished the show on Sunday.
By now, you've either binged Squid Game and are telling your friends and colleagues about it or you have no idea what it is. This will change over the course of the next several weeks. It's an entertainment phenomenon that's taking viewers, critics, and social media by storm. Tweets and memes with #squidgamenetflix, and reaction videos from YouTubers are popping up hourly. Moreover, publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal to CNET and CNN are writing about the show, trying to comprehend and dissect its viral success.
I won't go into detail about the story nor am I going to do a review of its entertainment merits. I do encourage you to watch it, and soon before spoilers become all but unavoidable. But be warned, this show is not for everyone. It's a dark series that's violent and filled with twisted scenarios that are not for the faint of heart. If you can stomach that, then you're in for one heck of a ride. Instead, I'm going to talk a little about why Squid Game is so compelling as a series and what this signals for Netflix and viewers at home.
Squid Game's meteoric rise may have caught us by surprise but the ingredients for its success are all there. Similar to Train to Busan (2016), it has the tried and true components that go into creating a gripping, thought provoking piece of entertainment.
A compelling story:
Fans of anime, graphic novels, and movies like The Hunger Games, Battle Royal and series like last year's Alice in Borderland will find familiar themes in Squid Game. While the plot is not wholly original or unique, the show packages it into a compelling story with memorable characters. Moreover, it effectively blends multiple genres, including drama, horror, even sci-fi into a wild, serialized smoothie.
Squid Game juggles a very large cast that includes many central characters and multiple side characters from diverse backgrounds and walks of life. Yet, each one is fleshed out and distinct. It's a joy to watch YouTubers new to K-drama putting in an earnest effort to learn the pronunciation of the characters' names. Learning Korean may not be easy but connecting and engaging with unique characters is.
If the characters have captured our hearts and minds, then credit is due to the actors inhabiting them. The performances in this show are outstanding and while some of the subtitles don't do justice to the original dialogue, you can fill in the gaps through the actors' nuances in body language, facial expression, and interactions with fellow cast. This ensemble is made up of many Korean acting veterans and several new faces, all who bring their A-game to Squid Game. I expect we'll be seeing and hearing a lot more from this talented group as they continue to gain global recognition and praise.
The set pieces, colors, costumes, and lighting create a visual feast for the eyes. The production is cinematic in scale, making each episode feel more like a film than an episode of a TV show. The aesthetics are simultaneously stunning and horrific. I imagine art and film schools will be usinv Squid Game as a case study for years to come.
Effective use of the medium
Squid Game proves that content is still king. It is serialized storytelling at its best and if Netflix's goal is to keep eyeballs on its platform, it clearly succeeds with this production. That it has leapt into the cultural zeitgeist without a lot of publicity or fanfare is proof positive that confident storytelling with well-developed, fully realized characters can prevail through good old fashioned word-of-mouth.
Even though I neglected to mention this on the episode, I would be remiss if I didn't point out how beautiful, haunting, and epic the musical score is for this series. I'm currently listening to the soundtrack on Spotify as I write this and am reminded how pivotal a good score is to a movie or show. Music is an unseen and often overlooked character when exploring a successful film or show. Composer Jung Jae Il deserves a lot of praise and I hope to hear more of his work in the future.
What this means for Netflix and its subscribers
Over the past several years, the streaming wars have heated up into their own version of Squid Game. Today, we have DisneyPlus, HBOMax, Hulu, Prime, and newer ones like Peacock, ParamountPlus, and more popping up constantly; all competing for our eyes and dollars. As such, many speculated whether Netflix's streaming reign would end. While Squid Game seemed to appear out of nowhere, it was part of a strategic shift that's been in the works for several years. Netflix has seen the rising popularity in cultural imports, particularly from South Korea. To that end, it has invested half a billion dollars into Korean content, licensing many shows and movies to expand its catalog. With Squid Game , Netflix took a bold next step in producing its first Korean show and an edgy one at that. The gamble has paid off big as Squid Game has topped the charts in 90 countries.
Netflix is employing a lethal two-punch content strategy of acquiring popular shows like Manifest and Cobra Kai while producing a wide array of original content. Clearly, it's not resting on its laurels. Rather, it is pushing the boundaries, introducing audiences to exciting and fresh content from abroad. This is not only good entertainment but a winning long-term business strategy built upon a bold, unique point of differentiation.
[Full disclosure: I own shares of Netflix as part of a diversified portfolio.]
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