So, full disclosure, everyone: this question wasn’t an actual submission for Dear kfangurl; it’s just that enough people have asked this question, or a variation of it, both here on the blog, and over on Patreon, that I thought I’d attempt to answer the question.
And since Dear kfangurl is where most of my attempts at answering questions sit, I thought this would be a suitable addition. 😉
Just so we’re clear, I’m not an actual professor of Korean entertainment (is there such a thing?). These are simply my personal observations and opinions, after hanging around the Dramaverse for.. (woah) 14 years now.
A LITTLE BIT OF BACKGROUND
In case you’ve been quarantining in the woods for the last couple of weeks without an internet connection, and don’t know why we’re talking about this, Squid Game, a 9-episode Korean drama produced by Netflix, premiered on September 17th, and in just these two weeks, has shot to Netflix’s #1 spot in multiple countries and regions.
In fact, it’s been #1 on Netflix in the US for more than a week, last I heard, which is a first for a Korean drama. It’s now also reached Netflix’s worldwide #1 ranking, and next, this show is on track to become Netflix’s most watched show of all time. WOW.
Basically, everywhere you turn, people are talking about Squid Game. Show has gone mainstream in a
big huge way, and one big question that people are asking, is, why?
Here’s my attempt at unraveling the answer, a little bit.
If I missed anything, or if you have other thoughts and insights, feel free to share them in the comments below, as always!
PS: Yes, this means I’ve watched Squid Game, and (what I think will be) a quickish review will be out relatively soon! (Update: not-so-quick-in-the-end review is here!)
WHY SQUID GAME IS SO POPULAR: A SAMPLING OF FACTORS
1. THIS IS PART OF A LARGER WAVE
The essence of kdramas’ appeal
I’m of the personal opinion that Hallyu (the Korean wave) never stopped. It’s just ebbed and flowed, in the last 20-ish years. And while the dramas themselves have evolved to look vastly different from their early cousins, I feel that the thing that’s made kdrama so appealing to viewers, has essentially remained the same.
Under its coat of ever-changing colors, kdrama knows how to make us feel. And once a show makes us feel, it’s got us, pretty much; hook, line and sinker.
The Netflix influence
In the last 5 or so years, Netflix has been investing a LOT of money into kdramas (Netflix committed to investing US$500 million on Korean dramas in 2021 alone). What this has meant for Netflix-produced kdramas, generally speaking, is, a bigger budget, a wider audience, more room to experiment, and a different release system.
With a bigger budget and a context that encourages an exploration of different genres, kdramas have become more varied than ever and more polished than ever. Both of these things appeal to a wider audience, as does the fact that these dramas tend to have fewer episodes, with all episodes being released at the same time.
This means that viewers don’t have to wait for new episodes, which is helpful, because with viewers having shorter attention spans nowadays (generally speaking), it’s easier to capture viewers’ attention for one marathon in a single sitting, than get them to come back, after a whole week’s gone by.
On top of this, there’s the Netflix influence. If viewers see something trending on Netflix for a period of time, it piques their curiosity and builds momentum. They tend to give it a look, if only out of curiosity. They want to know why a particular show is trending on Netflix, and this curiosity feeds the trend as well.
Also, there’s the thing where perhaps the Netflix branding offers non-kdrama fans a sense of credibility. Like, if it’s good enough to trend on a global platform like Netflix, perhaps it’s worth a look – that kind of thing.
Putting it together
With a wider range of genres, it’s more likely that a kdrama would capture the interest of mainstream audiences. And given the popularity of shows like The Hunger Games, where characters similarly have to battle to the death, it’s not terribly surprising that a curious non-kdrama fan might click on Squid Game, just to see what there is to see.
Of course, the proof is in the pudding, as they say. But like I mentioned above, kdramas have this wonderful knack for making us feel. The good ones engage us quickly with our main characters, and before we know it, we’re sucked in.
In essence, I think the shiny packaging and interesting genre draws mainstream audiences, and then the special kdrama emotional hook, is what keeps audiences. And that emotional connection, which Show keeps up, is what feeds the word of mouth. Basically, “I can’t stop thinking about this show (because it made me feel so much!); I need to tell all my friends about it!”
The growing wave
In my estimation, Squid Game is not a standalone drama, in that I see it as part of a larger wave.
For one thing, it’s not the first death game show to gain attention. From classics like 2001’s Battle Royale to more recent shows like 2020’s Alice in Borderland, death game shows have tended to be well-received by fans of Japanese shows, and have probably also managed to draw some mainstream viewers, during their runs.
At the same time, this is not the first kdrama to have stood out to the wider community as well. Other kdramas that non-drama fans have loved, include 2019’s Kingdom, 2019’s Crash Landing On You and 2020’s Sweet Home. My rule of thumb is, if a non-drama fan comes up to me and tells me that they spent the weekend watching Kingdom (which is exactly what happened when Kingdom first came out), that’s when I know the drama’s gone mainstream.
Personally, I feel that this wave of interest has been building over time, and Squid Game happens to be right on time, to ride the crest of that wave.
Does this mean that Squid Game’s success is mostly from just being at the right place at the right time? Well, no. I mean, yes, it’s partly about being at the right place at the right time, but at the same time, Show possesses a solid array of strengths, that make for an absorbing watch, which I’ll touch on next.
I mean, if people clicked on a trending show on Netflix and it turned out to be rubbish, it certainly wouldn’t climb to the top of the rankings, and stay there, now, would it? Show’s got the goods to make the journey worthwhile too, and that’s what has sealed its meteoric rise to the top.
2. THIS PARTICULAR SHOW’S STRENGTHS
Without getting into spoilers, which I’ll save for my review, here’s an overview of what I think Squid Game’s strengths are, that I believe have contributed to the drama’s popularity both among mainstream and niche audiences.
1. Good backstory and emotional hook.
I mentioned earlier that kdramas do this very well; they tend to treat the sharing of our characters’ emotional journeys with importance and sensitivity. It’s one of the key things that we kdrama fans love about our kdramas, and Squid Game demonstrates that skill effortlessly. Show does a great job of making us feel for the characters, whether that feeling is like, dislike, or a muddy shade in-between.
2. Great production values.
Show has excellent production values, and as my friend Yunah put it, it feels like you’re watching 9 movies, instead of one drama; the art direction is that good. The colors, scale of the set, and cinematography are all top notch, and enough to make any viewer feel like they’re watching a quality production.
3. Excellent acting.
From our key characters to smaller supporting roles, I’d say that the cast delivers excellent performances, all around. Well, except for the western actors in supporting roles, who are quite terrible, but that has been true of almost all kdramas from what feels like the dawn of time, so I won’t hold it against Show too much. 😏
Importantly, the characters who matter most, are delivered with nuance, and that all adds to the absorbing watch experience.
4. Show’s got an interesting vibe.
I think Show’s curious mix of whimsy and cuteness, with death and darkness, makes for an interesting and rather compelling vibe.
5. You can engage on any level you prefer.
As Paulina has said over on our Patreon discussions, one of the great things about kdramas, is that you can engage on any level you prefer. If you want to enjoy everything at face value, it’s perfectly valid, and if you want to dig deeper to discuss themes and symbolism, there’s lots of that too.
I find that to be particularly true of this show. On one end of the spectrum, you get thoughtful philosophical themes about society and what it means to exist in it, and on the other end of it, there’s a morbid fascination with blood, gore and death. You can enjoy the show while sitting on either end of that spectrum, or anywhere in between. That’s pretty great.
Also, if you’re already a fan of the death game genre, this is an interesting look at the Korean treatment of it.
6. It’s a great hybrid.
Show’s grittier concessions make this vibe closer to mainstream western entertainment, but it also manages to retain a lot of elements that are quintessentially Korean, and make kdramas what they are.
I love that this also helps to break misconceptions that the wider public tend to have of kdramas, that they’re basically soap operas for housewives who have nothing better to do.
7. Show has a multi-faceted appeal.
Besides the mainstream appeal which I discussed earlier, Squid Game also appeals to Korean audiences. Often, there are shows that the domestic audience loves, but the international audience doesn’t, and vice versa. Squid Game manages to have appeal, not only for the its international audience, but also its domestic viewers.
In fact, I read a recent post somewhere (that I can’t locate now, I’m sorry!), that two big reasons this show is resonating so much with Korean audiences, are, 1, the characters in Squid Game are the typical types that you’d find on the fringes of Korean society (the foreign worker, the North Korean defector, the gangster, the poor uneducated), and 2, the reality of living in debt is so true and prevalent in Korea, at this time.
I think it’s quite an achievement, that Show’s creators have essentially built it in such a way, that it has a multi-faceted sort of appeal.
8. Great cliffhangers.
Korean dramas usually write for the cliffhanger, ie, each episode is carefully structured to end on a cliffhanger, which is one of the key things that helps to give the watch experience a cracky, addictive sort of quality. This show offers some really good cliffhangers, which is why it’s not hard, really, to binge this drama in a short space of time.
9. Lots of well-known faces
For existing drama fans, Show has a great cast of known faces, and that draws existing fans. I mean, the rumor of Gong Yoo‘s cameo was enough to make me sit up and take serious notice, heh.
Of course, like BE said in a recent comment, with so much attention being focused on a kdrama that’s so heavily focused on blood and gore, it does make one wonder if kdrama production houses will all aim to produce similar content going forward, in hopes of achieving similar success.
While that’s definitely possible, I also think that the reverse effect is possible, where wider audiences might be drawn to explore other kdrama masterpieces, such as My Mister or Secret Love Affair, now that they’ve had a taste of how enjoyable kdramas can be. (Fingers crossed on this one, because it’s always so great, to have more people join the fandom!)
Plus, it takes some serious, serious financial means to create something like Squid Game, and I think that would definitely pose some constraints to most production houses, as they consider their next production. Hopefully this means that we’ll still have a wide range of genres to choose from, in Dramaland.
I really hope that this post helps to shed at least a little bit of light, in terms of why Squid Game has become the global phenomenon that it has. Like I said earlier, if you guys have any other thoughts or insights to add, please share them in the comments!
As for my review of Squid Game, I hope to have it posted within the next week, so stay tuned for that! (Update: review is here!)
Thanks, you guys.
1. If you feel that I missed anything, or if you have your own insights that you’d like to share with the rest of us, do tell us about it in the comments!
2. Do you have a question of your own? Drop me a comment here or on the Dear kfangurl page, or send me an email!