The success of Netflix’s “Squid Game”


Leah Van Weelden

Squid Game, the popular television show made in South Korea, was released on Netflix on September 17, 2021 and has reached 111 million views.

Who would have expected a series called “Squid Game” to have broken the records it did? In the six weeks since its release on Sept. 17, “Squid Game” has become the most popular series on Netflix with 111 million accounts having watched the series. Even “Bridgerton”, the former highest performing series, had only garnered 82 million accounts in its first 28 days of release.

For those unfamiliar with the series, “Squid Game” is a Korean television series about a fictional competition between 456 people who are struggling with massive amounts of debt. Everyone is pitted against one another in a series of children’s games for a chance to win a grand prize of 45.6 billion won; the equivalent of about $38,460,271 USD. The only catch is that if they do not win, they are killed on the spot. 

Plenty of people have already discussed the series’ critiques of capitalism and how it harms the lower class. Those are all important conversations to engage with by themselves but what interests me about “Squid Game” is not the message the story tries to tell but another reason. Instead, what fascinates me, in particular, is that “Squid Game” managed to get as popular as it did in the United States. 

“Squid Game” takes place in South Korea and was originally filmed in the Korean language. Nowadays it is not uncommon for foreign language media to become popular in the United States, as indicated by the rise of  K-Pop and anime. Often, foreign-language films and television programs don’t tend to capture American audiences. As a matter of fact, the South Korean film “Parasite” was the first foreign-language film to win an Oscar for “Best Picture” in 2019, 92 years since the Academy Awards began.

Yet here is “Squid Game”, a series that was filmed in Korean, performed by no “big name” actors from the West and has now become a cultural phenomenon so huge that it is already in talks for a second season. Not to mention that it is an entirely original script, instead of an adaptation of a book or a reboot of an older movie.

Ironically enough, the fact that “Squid Game” is such a uniquely strange show concept is why its creator, Hwang Dong-hyuk, struggled to get the show made. According to an article by RadioTimes, Hwang spent almost ten years pitching “Squid Game” to different television producers but kept having his idea shut down because it was “too gross and too unrealistic”. 

On paper, the idea of adults risking their life competing in children’s games for money is a ridiculous concept. The fact that it takes place in the present day instead of some dystopian future makes it even harder to believe. But as RadioTimes points out, “Squid Game” is about class struggle and the divide between the upper and lower classes. It’s a struggle that many people have grappled with since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and helps “Squid Game”’s bizarre setting feel a little more “realistic”. 

In a way, the show’s weird and “gross” concept is the main reason why I think it’s so good. The innocence of children’s games helps to heighten the life-or-death competition. Everybody has failed before at “Red Light, Green Light”, so thinking about how poorly you would do with your life on the line adds onto the tension. The actors’ performances sell how horrifying their situation is and made me flinch every time I saw one of them die. Seeing a harsh critique of the class divide inside a show where people died in such strange ways, funnily enough, made it that much easier to talk about an otherwise depressing topic.

Sitting down with my friends to watch “Squid Game” in the original Korean dub was the most fun I have had watching a series in a long time. It took us some time to get used to reading subtitles, but they didn’t stop us from enjoying a story that felt relatable despite how unique it was. We sympathized with the competitors drowning in debt, we gasped in horror once bodies started dropping and cheered when they survived. We didn’t understand a single spoken word and that did not bother us a single bit.

My only concern is that somewhere down the line, “Squid Game” is going to be Americanized and it loses what makes it so special. Plenty of other popular foreign properties, especially from Asian countries, have been remade “for American audiences” by casting big-name American actors and having them set in the United States. It is disheartening to think that because of the success “Squid Game” has achieved that it will be sent down the same route, even though there is already an English dub and subtitles in multiple languages. 

Still, I can’t help but be excited by how much “Squid Game” has succeeded. The series can be a gateway for American audiences to start giving more foreign shows a chance to succeed. There may be countless wonderful stories out there that people haven’t found yet because they’re not in English. Now that “Squid Game” has reached the heights it has, maybe the task of watching a foreign film or show has become a little less daunting.