A violent and deranged Korean series is hardly what anyone expected to be the next “Game of Thrones,” but Netflix’s “Squid Game” is the talk of the town.
The hit thriller follows desperate, cash-strapped characters as they compete in a brutal series of games, hoping to win money while fighting to survive.
“Squid Game” is a splashy critique of how society treats underdogs — not unlike another recent Korean hit, Oscar winner “Parasite,” or even the controversial “Joker.” Still, its popularity is bizarre, since it’s not pleasant stuff. The show’s grotesque scenes would seemingly make it tough to stomach for socially conscious New Yorkers — or would it?
“‘Squid Game’ definitely doesn’t like billionaires, and that sentiment sells,” Brooklyn-based clinical psychology academic Benjamin Katz, 32, told The Post.
“The show is definitely making a statement about the experience of living under extreme resource inequality, and how desperate people can get for their big break.”
Brooklyn writer Stephanie Guerilus, whose novel “Control” follows a teen activist, tweeted, “#SquidGame is so f–ked up. But yet I’m enjoying it entirely too much.”
Guerilus told The Post she doesn’t see “Squid Game” as having a liberal or conservative stance. “I just enjoyed the show and didn’t really filter it through a political lens. It was an intense watch, but very intriguing. Even though we live in a polarized society, I think the show hits a sweet spot for all parties. Many are driven by free will, capitalism and by any means necessary … At times, it felt like a clash of socialism versus capitalism.”
Most of all, she saw an underlying theme of Darwinism in the show’s “survival of the fittest” angle, she said.
Brooklyn-based comedian Rajat Suresh, 26, tweeted a viral remark about the show with over 87,000 likes to date: “wow squid game reveals how bad working class people have it in korea. thank god I live in america where working class people have it awesome and are very happy.”
“I think it’s definitely trying to shed light on class issues. It’s not really a subtle message,” Suresh told The Post. “The show sort of beats you over the head with the idea that working-class people are desperate, which is good in a way because working-class people are beat over the head with this stuff every day. This isn’t really a smart reason to like it, but I think it was a good fun show with a solid message.”
He’s unbothered by the blood, he said, and doesn’t see that as countering his values or the show’s message. “If it wasn’t as violent, I don’t think we as an audience would have really cared as much for the contestants in the game,” Suresh said. “And I think obviously the excessive violence is supposed to show what working-class people would rather put up with than the capitalist system they have to deal with outside the game.”
“Squid Game,” which hit the streamer on Sept. 17, has seen staggering success. It’s risen to be No. 1 in over 90 countries (including the US and the UK) despite some callouts for botched translations. The hashtag #SquidGame has over 22 billion views on TikTok to date, and it’s trended on Twitter and Instagram. While Netflix is opaque about its viewership numbers, CEO Ted Sarandos said in September that there’s “a very good chance it’s going to be our biggest show ever.”
Guerilus said she didn’t have a problem with the show’s gorier aspects because they fit its harsh outlook. “I covered my eyes during one of the initial scenes because it was so gruesome, but then I found myself not being able to look away. There’s a tendency to sanitize certain images [but] the sheer brutality of [this show] reinforces the concept of the series. I’ll definitely never think of Green Light, Red Light the same way again!”
Lilly, 29, who works in advertising, agreed. “The violence is difficult to watch, particularly at the beginning,” said Lilly, who declined to give her last name. “I’m one who usually watches more light-hearted shows. However, you begin to somewhat tolerate it since the show grabs your attention to make you want to keep watching to see who makes it to the end.”
Katz was more squeamish, but he felt it was worth pushing through the parts he found distasteful, he said. “The violence is pretty jarring for me — I’ve never even seen an episode of ‘Game of Thrones.’ I’m usually a binge-watcher, but I can only watch an episode at a time. My dad asked if he should watch it and I said, ‘Yes, but drink responsibly.’ As violent as it can get, I think ‘Squid Game’ really nails the feeling of fighting for access in an all-or-nothing world. Life is hyper-competitive right now, and the show hits on that feeling in a way not many others have.”
“Squid Game” does not yet have an announced Season 2, but writer and director Hwang Dong-hyuk said a potential second season would focus on the Frontman, a former cop who now oversees the game.
“I think the issue with police officers is not just an issue in Korea. I see it on the global news … Maybe in Season 2 I can talk about this more,” he said.
Netflix’s global TV head Bela Bajaria told Vulture, “We’re trying to figure out the right structure” for a potential Season 2, although nothing has been decided yet.
“For the last month, I’ve been told the only thing most TV studios are looking for is ‘Ted Lasso’-esque optimism, so it’s gonna be weird this week when they’re all looking for … shows about hundreds of people killing each other for money,” TV producer and writer Tze Chun tweeted on Sunday, in reference to “Squid Game’s” runaway success.
Guerilus said she does not consider the show a guilty-pleasure watch.
“I’ve already started to convert my friends, but I caution that it’s not for those who have a weak stomach.”
Lilly also said she’s the first of her friends to watch the show but doesn’t have an issue with passing along the rec. “I kept seeing TikToks about the show, and its unique storyline intrigued me to see what all the fuss was about. I know my friends have heard about the show, but I think they’re waiting to watch until one of us finishes it.”
“I think everyone loves it, so I’m not guilty about watching it,” said Suresh.
Another factor that’s spreading the word on “Squid Game” is that non-English-language shows are rising in popularity — see other hits such as “Lupin” or “Money Heist” — thanks in part to their accessibility via streaming. So, blood and gore aside, maybe it’s not such a surprise that it’s catching on with all kinds of audiences.
“I think the [show’s] message is that many good people do bad things for what they believe are good reasons,” said Guerilus. “I liked that the main characters existed in gray. It would’ve been very easy to show them as only being motivated by greed … But money wasn’t their only motivating factor. They were looking out for their families and just wanted to live.”