Time was when Netflix would have killed for a hit like Squid Game. The South Korean survival drama – about an elaborate contest pitting desperate debtors against one another in a series of deadly children’s games – has cut through the static of the cluttered TV landscape like a machete. Back in late September, nine days after its release, Netflix boss Ted Sarandos claimed there was a “very good chance” Squid Game would become the streaming service’s most watched series ever. Since then, it has remained stubbornly fixed to the top of the charts in its native Korea, in the UK, and around the world. Once it gets its hooks – or should that be tentacles? – in you, there’s simply no letting go.
So, what is it that made Squid Game such a compelling success? There’s nothing radically new or different about it. The story of Squid Game is nothing we haven’t seen before – its premise has been widely likened to The Hunger Games, which itself borrows liberally from Battle Royale and The Running Man. It also bears certain similarities to other Netflix series, which generally abide by a fairly consistent “house style”. This takes the form of a semi-standardised aesthetic sensibility that stems from the use of “approved” cameras and the need to optimise framing and lighting for viewing on mobile phone screens, as well as a tendency towards heavily serialised “10-hour movies” rather than traditional episodic stories. Even its title conforms to the punchy two-or-three-syllable formula that can be seen in so many of its biggest recent series (among them, Tiger King, The Witcher, Bridgerton, Lupin, Money Heist, Stranger Things, Sex/Life, Sweet Tooth), and must surely be deliberate. But Squid Game is so much more than just formula. And it’s made most of Netflix’s other shows look positively mediocre in comparison.
Before the streaming wars, when shows managed to achieve comparably fast, feverish popularity, it was usually because they offered something new. Game of Thrones reinvigorated the TV fantasy genre with unprecedented production values and epic battle scenes. Breaking Bad developed a fresh, idiosyncratic visual style and subverted some of the most immutable conventions of the crime genre. Whereas Squid Game is no game-changer. Its popularity chiefly stems from the simple fact that it is good – a well-told story, accessibly written, charismatically acted and sharply directed. For any Korean-language series to make it on the global stage, for English-speaking audiences to “overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles”, as Bong Joon Ho memorably put it, being good is of course a prerequisite. But what does this say about the other Netflix “hits” it has been leaving in its wake?
Take the reigning champ in the Netflix TV original all-time viewership charts: Bridgerton. The show obviously has plenty of advocates, but its appeal is that of a soap opera, clothed in the money and aesthetic of “prestige” television (except for the incongruously cheap-looking CGI). Next on the list, tied with the agreeable French thriller Lupin, is gritty fantasy adaptation The Witcher, a schlocky, humourless dirge of a series that wobbles uncomfortably between its more eccentric genre leanings and the need to be taken seriously, to justify the piles of money thrown into its making. The artistic gulf between either of these shows and Squid Game is stark. And yet both these series are staggeringly, if bewilderingly, popular, watched by tens of millions and pored over on social media.
Netflix is famously secretive about its viewing figures, releasing curated snippets of data infrequently, for the purposes of promotion rather than information. Because its subscriber base is constantly expanding, it makes sense that Netflix’s most-watched list is always populated by recent additions – but it’s also a quiet condemnation of a Netflix series’ shelf life. Before Netflix, the success of a TV show was defined, in part, by its rewatchability. The best series from 10, 20, 30 years ago are still widely and regularly rewatched by people who know them well, and discovered by new generations of viewers. I don’t think the same can be said for Orange is the New Black, or Mindhunter, or even BoJack Horseman, to name some of the superior Netflix originals from years past. A series like 2018’s Maniac can be all over the internet one day and then vanish completely the next, memory-holed so forcefully that you’ll end up needing to Google just to check you didn’t dream it up.
Squid Game deserves the attention and praise it’s getting, but Netflix should not be given too much credit. The streaming service released over 100 TV series last year alone; it’s fair to say the hit rate for popular, artistically worthwhile shows is through the floor. “Throw enough mud at the wall and some of it will stick” is ropey advice in most situations. In the lucrative world of TV production, it ought to sound like lunacy. But for Netflix, it’s basically a mantra. It’s just this time, some of it has really stuck.