Dear kfangurl: Why is Squid Game so popular?

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.

Also, the Gong Yoo thirst arising from Squid Game is real; check out this hilarious article that Beez shared, over on my Gong Yoo Birthday Tribute post.

IN CLOSING

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.

Smooches. ❤️

~kfangurl

I hope that helped? ❤️

POST-SCRIPT:

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!

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A P
A P
5 months ago

Re: ” Just so we’re clear, I’m not an actual professor of Korean entertainment (is there such a thing?). ”

I took a course almost ten years ago with Professor Choe Youngmin at the University of Southern California. It was a delight to analyze Korean film aesthetics themes and cultural context with other K-drama/film lovers.
https://dornsife.usc.edu/cf/ealc/ealc_faculty_display.cfm?person_id=1027263

beez
8 months ago

@Georgia Peach – good to “see” you. But I’ll put a hold on getting beamed up just yet since Scottie and must of the crew are heaven side. 😉

beez
8 months ago

@JJ – I got a little too excited there and didn’t answer your questions:
Yes. I watched Farscape to the bitter end. Thank goodness they made The Peacekeeper Wars! And can we talk about Ben Browder turning down the coveted role in Stargate Atlantis just for us fans so the saga could be completed? (Yes, he did end up on SG-1 eventually but those were difficult boots to fill (and he had no guarantee that job would be there) since Richard Dean Anderson had fans that went all the way back to his sisal opera days in 1972 who didn’t want to see him leave or be replaced. I love Ben Browder because of Farscape but even I didn’t want to see him replaced. But on second watching, I enjoyed him.

And no. Tell me about this story O’Bannon wrote after the TV series ended. Or can you provide a link?

JJ
JJ
8 months ago
Reply to  beez

Ben Browder is just amazing! I never watched SG-1 (even though I love Richard Dean Anderson) because I loved the movie so much. I have several friends who loved SG-1. When Ben Browder joined I thought about watching it, but couldnt get past Farscape at that time 🙂

A friend of mine who knew I loved Farscape and was so upset with the cancellation bought me the final magazine to read the story O’Bannon wrote 🙂
In the final issue of its run, the Farscape magazine published a piece of fiction written by series creator Rockne S. O’Bannon. Set a long time after the end of the fourth season, this details the subsequent adventures of the Moya crew. Since “Horizons” was written before the Peacekeeper Wars miniseries, there are some plot inconsistencies.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farscape

beez
8 months ago
Reply to  JJ

@JJ – I haven’t clicked on the links you’ve provided yet (but I will, for sure). I think I own the book Horizons (if it made the move with me to Florida). I seem to remember owning a few of Farscape books and the first one I read was terrible so I didn’t read the others. Farscape’s color palate is a sci-fi nerd’s dream (at least this BFLERD’s anyway – and once you get used to looking at Dargo).

I also read a few Alien Nation books that were really well written. And, of course, I have few read lots of the SG-1 books that are cannon. If you ever want to start up sci fi watching again – in my opinion Star Gate SG-1 is the best of all the series. I say that because they’re family friendly (unless you get a copy of Episode 1 from the original Showtime broadcast which has full female nudity BUT it was nothing riske just a quick shot of a character being lifted into a stretcher). (Oh. And I HATE the politically correct remix they did of Episode 1 later, but other than that…). But I was able to introduce my son to sci fi with StarGate. He never took to Star Trek (until he was an adult) but he loved spending time with his ol’ mom watching SG-1, even after he started college. We had a regular date night on Fridays for SG-1 and BSG. You know that’s something when a college student makes sure he’s home on Friday night watching television with his mom! (He did go hang out after BSG went off though. 😆)

phl1rxd
phl1rxd
8 months ago
Reply to  beez

@Beez – the only thing my son ever watched with me was football and Sherlock (Cumberbatch). That is nice to hear that your son had those Friday nights with you Beez. He will always remember those.

beez
7 months ago
Reply to  phl1rxd

I’m smiling now just remembering…🙂

JJ
JJ
8 months ago
Reply to  beez

@Beez – Oh the Horizons I meant was a magazine and O’Bannon wrote the story, I forgot how many pages though. But, I do remember getting teary eyed at how he continued/finished the story. I thought he did a good job back then as I was crushed fan at lost of Farscape. 🙂 Who knows how it holds up today 🙂

Oh, I loved Dargo. He was so fascinating and loved him. And Pilot! Oh how I loved Pilot. And Moya ❤️

Wow ! Thats so awesome your son watched SG-1 and BSG with you 🙂 SG-1 just never grabbed me. I really did not enjoy Amanda Tapping in her role in SG-1, but LOVED her in Sanctuary. Thought she was fantastic in Sanctuary. So since SG-1 is on Netflix, I might try it again or jump to the part where Ben Browder comes in 🙂 Dont get me wrong, I have watched several episodes of SG-1 over the years….hoping.

Did you ever see Earth 2?

beez
7 months ago
Reply to  JJ

@jj – I loved, loved, love Peacekeeper Wars! I am an overly critical person and the only criticism that I had of it was that whoever did the make up couldn’t duplicate the makeup for some of the supporting characters (the curly redhead and the old witch woman) – I mean it’s not like he/she didn’t have images to work from. But everything else about it was wonderful. Peacekeeper Wars and Firefly are wonderful and not just because we fans were needing closure. They don’t seem like “after thoughts of appeasement” like some movies that are made just to offer fans some closure. I know I’m repeating myself but … whatever. Both are more than worthy films.

I’m sure Farscape holds up because you either love it or hate it. Watching is an act of love. I say this because one thing I cannot abide is lack of logic in sci-fi but Farscape is a an illogical glorious mess! And I still love it! 😆 When I first began watching I thought the puppets were a mess – including Dargo although he’s a human being (his face may as well be a puppet! 😆)

My favorite is Rigel. I forgot he was a puppet he was so brilliantly conniving and greedy. No Ferenghi can compare to His Royal Highness Rigel the 18th! 😆

My favorite episode is the one where they land on earth (I think they were in the past?) on Halloween and Rigel somehow taking kids’ candy and becoming sugar addicted (withdrawal shakes and all). 🤣

As for SG-1 – it’s the type of show that if you don’t watch from Episode 1 and don’t miss an episode, you won’t enjoy it. The reason that I believe that’s true is that back sometime around 1992-1994 or thereabouts, I’d done away with cable television and so on Sundays nothing (zip) was on to watch. Sunday afternoons they showed SG-1 along with some other little pitiful syndicated shows (Beast Master & New Tarzan that looked like they had a budget of $3,000 to split between them). And Nasacar racing or golf would often interrupt these shows so the continuation of the SG-1 story arc seemed nonexistent. But then one Sunday as I was watching, suddenly we had Colonel Jack O’Neil forced (by an alien device) to admit his romantic feelings toward Major Sam Carter which went against regulations and the romantic in me literally sat up and took notice. I immediately signed back up for whichever basic cable would get me Showtime (I think that was the network). I started from Episode 1 and all of a sudden my little boring catch-it-when-it’s-on-just-because-nothing-else-is-on became my tv obsession! And besides the romance, I found that all of the episodes tied together in an arc, even the seemingly stand alone from the arc episodes would have something in them that continued the over all story arc (earth versus the Gho’auld aliens). I watched it through until I caught up to the 5th season which is as far as the show had gotten. I watched it through to the bitter end. “Bitter” because the show was not as stellar in the three remaining seasons – 2 of which Ben Browder and Claudia Black had joined the cast. The episodes weren’t horrible but losing Richard Dean Anderson caused a shift in the team dynamic. I understand that they didn’t want it to seem like what it was – swapping RDA for BB. But that meant that a lot of comedic lines were giving to the other cast members. BB was still humorous because he has that way about him, but this also meant that Amanda Tapping and Michael Shanks’ (and even Chris Judge’s formerly completely stoic) characters now had funny punch lines. But what made SG-1 work was that everyone else played it straight around RDA’s irreverence (which only made him funnier).

As for Amanda Tapping’s character on SG-1 – She was pretty amazing. Badzazz without being overly masculine nor needing to prove herself in some way. (Don’t count the first episode though.)

As for closure movies, there were two. The first one was awesome and the second one was as bad as the first one was good.

JJ
JJ
7 months ago
Reply to  beez

@Beez – Soooo sorry it took me so long to respond to you! GAH!

Our talking about Peacekeeper Wars makes me want to go back and watch it again 🙂 Repeat away. They were love letters to the characters, actors, production staff and fans and done well. So lucky we had such dedication in the Sci Fi community for these two movies.

Sure Farscape was messy in places as the first season was a bit hard to navigate, but glad I stuck with it. Farscape still has some of the best storylines from Sci Fi for me – the clone storyline and when Crichton goes back in time to save someone. Excellent. And then Scorpious…..fabulous actor who pulled that character off to become a fan favorite. Sigh, I love this Show and have such great memories of watching Farscape 🙂

RIGEL!!!! How can I forget Rigel 🤣🤣🤣 Oh yes the Halloween Episode. 🤣

Your explanation on SG is the first time ever I have ever been interested in giving SG a chance! Thank you so much for all the details. Ill give Amanda Tapping’s character another chance this time. Still she was awesome in Sanctuary 🙂

Did you see that some of the cast of SG got together on a Zoom Chat recently? And I guess Amazon is coming out with a 4th SG series?! I need to get to work on the original!!!!

beez
7 months ago
Reply to  JJ

@jj -so much good stuff you’ve provided in your last paragraph! I need to search out that SG1 virtual reunion and find out more about the Amazon reboot. Thanks, jj!

beez
8 months ago

@JJ – I ❤ ❤ ❤ Galaxy Quest. I was hoping that that show with Ben Affleck’s little brother would give us something similar but it just didn’t grab me.

I feel that Space: Above and Beyond is a more serious and sophisticated version of the movie (what’s that movie with Casper Van diem?)

I own all of the series that I mentioned to you previously on dvd, except Battlestar Gallactica.

Have you checked out Star Trek Lower Decks?

JJ
JJ
8 months ago
Reply to  beez

@Beez – I can always watch Galazy Quest – over and over and over and over 🙂

Seriously, I am so grateful you reminded me of Space: Above and Beyond. One scene has haunted me for so many years, but could never remember the Show!

Starship Troopers!!! Hysterical movie. So bad, its sooo good! 🤣🤣🤣 My one Sci Fi buddy loved the book and was so bummed about the movie. She raved about the book and how well it was written. I have seen Starship Troppers so many times and it never gets old or funny.

Awesome 🙂 I have Farscape on DVD 🙂 Oh, I loved BSG so much….fabulous musical score.

Havent checked out Lower Decks, yet. My friend has though. Are you enjoying it?

beez
8 months ago
Reply to  JJ

@jj Lower Decks – very much enjoying seeing Trek being spoofed. And even though it’s animated, it does make you stop and think of all those unsung crew members from the “lower decks”. 😏

Trent
8 months ago
Reply to  beez

@JJ & @beez Have either of you ever read Red Shirts, by John Scalzi? (I don’t know if you’re into written SF, beez?). It’s kind of a satire of the “Red Shirts” in Star Trek (even though it’s not a tie-in novel and isn’t explicitly set in the Star Trek universe–kinda like Galaxy Quest is Star Trek in all but name), and how they have a very low survival rate. It asks the question, what happens when some of the “red shirts” start to realize they’re basically cannon fodder?

(I didn’t care for it, because it’s not my kind of humor. But a lot of people loved it, and it did win the Hugo Award for Best Novel the year it came out…)

JJ
JJ
8 months ago
Reply to  Trent

@Trent – Nope havent read Red Shirts. Ill ask my buddy if he has as he is a Trekkie and a voracious Sci Fi reader. For me, I tend to watch Sci Fi and read more Fantasy except for back in the day with McCaffrey.

beez
7 months ago
Reply to  Trent

Hi, Trent – I used to love reading science fiction but I don’t read anything anymore. My M.S. makes it where I can’t enjoy reading. I can’t remember what I’ve read in the earlier chapters (sometimes paragraph) which makes it difficult. Even with tv, I often can’t remember what happened in previous episodes. But at least I can easily fast forward through the episode from the previous week and that helps a lot. (And that is also why I appreciate bloggers such as KFG who make it easy to see which episode certain things happened in so I can go back to see what everyone’s talking about. 😉)
Silver lining – I get along better with my bitchy siblings since I tend to forget their latest offenses. 😆

phl1rxd
phl1rxd
8 months ago
Reply to  beez

@Beez – As I know very little about western TV, I am unfamiliar with Lower Decks but my daughter and son in law will love it. I will pass it on. Thanks Beez.

JJ
JJ
8 months ago
Reply to  beez

@Beez – Thanks! I might peek at it 🙂

beez
8 months ago

@JJ – I’m not trying to hype Space Sweepers. There’s nothing special about it (if you don’t consider Song Joon ki special). But it is fun and it has that K-vibe that tends to get you to invest in the characters even if nothing’s too deep.

JJ
JJ
8 months ago
Reply to  beez

@Beez – Thanks for letting me know. I definitely want to see it now 🙂

Kay
Kay
8 months ago

I think this is very insightful and pretty spot on as to why Squid Game has become so popular. Great job as always 🙂

beez
8 months ago

@JJ – I ❤ Space Sweepers! Did you like it?

JJ
JJ
8 months ago
Reply to  beez

Hey Beez – Havent seen it, yet. I have mostly stuck to Kdrama Shows and have only seen one Kfilm – Tune in for Love. I have Space Sweepers on my list 🙂

beez
8 months ago
Reply to  JJ

Did you see all the questions and going ons that I asked/responded to you with? My posts tend to fly and land all over the blog instead of under the person whom I’m replying to.
The posts are around this area https://youtu.be/GMaRQaW2Kpo

JJ
JJ
8 months ago
Reply to  beez

Hey Beez – No! I totally missed your replies. Thanks for letting me know as I just found them!!!! I am freaking out its so rare to be able to talk about true Sci Fi with someone 🙂 🙂 🙂

ylangbango
ylangbango
8 months ago

I watch Kdramas with subtitles but since it is available I watch it English dubbed. Dont you think that this contributed to its wider appeal to non Kdrama watchers and non subtitle readers. Of course on top of those things mentioned.

Antonio
8 months ago

The success is due to the fact that Squid Games is a very Westernized product in terms of (lack of) values. While many fans of Korean or Chinese dramas fail to admit it, what drives us to love non-Western dramas is the fact that the stories are imbued with a moral sense akin to traditional religious themes.

Celebration of the family, exaltation of the difference between men and women and mutual completion, purity and innocence, honesty and moral rectitude, respect for parents. This is what many of us have found in kdrama.

Unfortunately, today’s drift of Western products tends towards nihilism, violence, pornography and depravity. It is obvious that many are attracted to it. What I think is that if a lot of people healed My Mister or even What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim then they would stop being attracted only to Western content. But it is obvious that the pendulum is not facing this direction.

reaper
reaper
8 months ago
Reply to  Antonio

Finally somebody that gets it. Thank you.
Now I know I am not alone.

Antonio
8 months ago
Reply to  reaper

We are not few. It is that many are afraid to say certain things. Just think that in these days on dreambeans they accused me of invading a “safe spaces” with my “hate speech”.

reaper
reaper
8 months ago
Reply to  Antonio

The same happened to me too. Logical and reasonable arguments are not allowed anymore. As soon as you don’t like or support something you are a hater and that is just dumb. People are so blind with their love for certain things that every other opinion is an offense to them

Antonio
8 months ago
Reply to  reaper

Wokeism is a religion, a cult. I don’t know what nationality you are, but if you live in the US or in Europe (I’m Italian) you are now surrounded by this conformism that does not admit dissent.

Yesterday I was watching an average and “artisanal” Chinese show (Miss Chow and Miss Lizard) and the incredible paradox is to think that under the yoke of the obscene and unforgivable Chinese dictatorship they still educate the masses in a really healthy and “moral” way. It is not believed that today, outside of religious niches, a Westerner should turn to the Asian market to have healthy entertainment based on authentic values.

reaper
reaper
8 months ago
Reply to  Antonio

There is a word for it? Wokeism… damn. Sadly I am surrounded. I am german.

I can only agree with you.

Georgia Peach
8 months ago
Reply to  Antonio

Antonio, I’m so in line right behind you. I have for years told people that very thing about kdrama. Sadly no one listens and I’m in a community of devoted Christians and they still watch US television shows. I’ve watched 4 episodes of Squid Game. And yes, you can so see the influence of Netflix Dollars! So afraid for my beloved Kdramas and all they have meant to me!!!

Antonio
8 months ago
Reply to  Georgia Peach

The best we can do is recommend kdramas to people we have a good relationship with and help them understand what and why kdrama are superior. After watching My Mister, Secretary Kim or Mother I don’t think it’s possible anymore to look at the junk produced in the West.

Of course there are exceptions. If you haven’t seen them, check out When Calls the Hearts (tv show) and Unplanned (film) for example.

reaper
reaper
8 months ago
Reply to  Georgia Peach

We all should hope that at least the korean broadcasting stations stay strong and keep making real kdramas.

I mean most of the netflix kdramas are not watchable but I really don’t won’t to know how they will turn out in the future.

Gloglo
Gloglo
8 months ago
Reply to  Antonio

Squid Game is not a nihilistic drama, quite the opposite. In a crucial scene at the end of the show two of the protagonists bet on whether a passerby would stop to help a dying beggar in the street. A passerby does stop and saves the beggar. That outcome is symbolic of what this drama is truly about: Brutality exists, but it can be combatted.

I would consider Vincenzo closer to those nihilistic Westernised dramas you mention as Vincenzo the character was the closest representation of an antihero I’ve seen in kdrama… but even Vincenzo cannot really compare with the likes of Villanelle in Killing Eve, Marty in Ozark or Don Draper… Squid Game has a very clear moral compass. There is blood, there is shock, there is ruthlessness, but there isn’t any alternate or questionable morality.

beez
8 months ago
Reply to  Gloglo

@Gloglo – I get what you’re saying, however, may I ask how long you’ve been watching Kdramas? I ask because most people who’ve been watching for any substantial amount of time knows that there are things in Squid Game that are ground breaking because they just are not seen/done in Kdrama. We know these things exist, but the standards (censors) of S. Korea did not allow them to be shown on television. Those of us who turned to Kdrama and rarely watch western content anymore, watched for this very reason.

Gloglo
Gloglo
8 months ago
Reply to  beez

Hi beez. I’m fairly new to Kdrama as I only started watching them from March 2020, but in this one year and a half I’ve watched a lot of them… 😅 and, yes, I know exactly what you and Antonio mean. There are certain scenes in Squid Game that are unthinkable in traditional drama for Korean TV, however my point was that, although this show displays the edge and grit of Western shows, it does still very much embodies what Kdrama is all about: a wholesome moral message, a well structured story and a deeply emotional journey. There is no “nihilism” here, there is no antihero whose skewed morality takes central stage.

As I have mentioned before, I’m not a person that enjoys antiheroes. I like seeing people that are essentially nice on my screen. The main protagonist in Squid Game is very flawed, but I root for him because I know he’s a good person at his core. The show was also traditional (and clever enough I must add) to introduce a more conventional hero in episode 3 of the story: the good looking policeman in search of his hyun. The show makers knew very well that those with a more traditional palate needed this kind of heroic eye candy 😍. I myself REALLY ENJOYED this character! 😊

beez
8 months ago
Reply to  Gloglo

@Gloglo – I liked the young cop too. And I do get what you’re saying, but when you’re my age, you dislike change. I’ve been studying the Korean language just so I can watch some of the shows (like the daily soap opera ones) the way I used to watch American tv – while doing other things like folding clothes or sewing. Watching the subs means I can’t take my eye off the tv for even a second. This new Netflix vibe is causing me to wonder if, by the time I’m anywhere near fluent, will I even care anymore?

beez
8 months ago
Reply to  Antonio

@Antonio – I anticipated this shift the moment Netflix entered the Kdrama game. I began ringing the alarm back when they first acquired White Nights and Man to Man. But, of course, what can any of us do? We’re just a segment of a global audience and we all know that, now that a larger western audience is watching, our protests or boycotts would mean nothing when competing against the $$$ that’s to be made.😞

Antonio
8 months ago
Reply to  beez

We just have to stay anchored to values ​​and morality. And always remember that even if we are a minority, this does not mean that we are wrong. For example, I may be the only one in the world who thinks that dismembering a baby in its mother’s womb is murder, but I will remain firm in my belief that I am right.

beez
8 months ago
Reply to  Antonio

@Antonio -I see why you created a stir over at dramabeans. While I do believe in your right to free speech and as a devout Christian I may share your thoughts on a lot of things, but I do believe that this is not the place for them. That statement could’ve started a lot of inflamed responses (I’m glad it didn’t). But, in my opinion, places that are to discuss Kdrama should be just that – discuss Kdrama. I try to temper my responses knowing that there are people from all over the world here on Kfangurl’s web site and that will mean people from all types of religions and backgrounds. Not only do I not wish to offend them but it would be wildly inappropriate to bring up stuff that they don’t want to be exposed to when they only came on the site expecting to read/discuss Kdramas. I’m not trying to be overly “woke” but just putting myself in others’ shoes. Would I want to come to this site and see Satanists or other religions going on about what they believe but is completely against my religion? No. And so I should avoid placing others in that predicament. And then there’s Kfangurl herself. Let’s not create problems for her either.

MC
MC
8 months ago

Hey KFG great post as always, very insightful and I agree with you. I just want to caution that if I recall correctly, Netflix considers 2 mins as having watched the show, so it’s super high watch numbers are probably fuelled by people tuning in to check out the hype too. But having said that, it’s become a true cultural phenomenon so I believe a significant number did finish the show and wish to talk about it. Otherwise, great article!

Hana Bilqisthi
8 months ago

Great post

Sara
8 months ago

When my boyfriend said he wanted to watch Squid Game with me, I was so excited! It was the first time he had ever expressed interest in watching a K-drama with me.

We watched the first episode. It wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I thought I’d keep watching if my boyfriend wanted to. But he said he hated it and wouldn’t watch any more. He is such a snob about TV series in general though. He much prefers movies.

Of Squid Game he said it was way too repetitive and heavy-handed trying to drive home the reasons why the main character would join the game, taking far too long to get to the action, and it would’ve been much better as a movie than a series.

As for me, I think it was too early to judge after one episode. It normally takes me a few episodes to sink into a drama.

Unfortunately I can’t see us watching another K-drama together anytime soon 😣

Gloglo
Gloglo
8 months ago
Reply to  Sara

I would tell your boyfriend that Squid Game is heavy handed and extremely detailed when exposing the causes to enter the game for the audience to connect with these characters that bit deeper…. As kfangirl mentioned, Kdramas trade in “feelings”, in pulling your heartstrings. It’s something they generally do very well and for this kind of emotional rollercoaster the presentation of the characters needs to hit certain milestones. Cinema shorthand would have been insufficient here. It is not about knowing, but about “feeling” that not one of the game contestants, not even the most cynical jaded ones, had any other choice but to enter the game. We needed to see the full extent of their disfunction to empathise in that quintessential Kdrama fashion we love so much around here 😊.

It seems that, this time around, this heightened emotional output has worked with regular TV audiences too. I think you and your boyfriend should give the show yet another chance. Chances are you both will have great discussions after going through all 9 episodes! 😅

manukajoe
manukajoe
8 months ago
Reply to  Sara

Is he ok with subtitles? Anyway K drama often take a few episodes to find their groove, it’s hard to judge from the first episode.

Sara
8 months ago
Reply to  manukajoe

Yep, he probably watches more stuff with subs than without. He has enjoyed Korean movies such as Oldboy, The Handmaiden, Burning, and Parasite too. I think he just doesn’t have the patience for TV series. I agree that K-dramas take a few episodes to get into.

Snow Flower
Snow Flower
8 months ago

I thought that Kingdom was an excellent sageuk, tightly written and expertly directed. Should I watch The Squid Game? I do appreciate the occasional dystopia and I am also a big fan of Steven King’s The Long Walk. It is one thing to read about bloodshed and another to watch it on the screen though…

Trent
8 months ago
Reply to  Snow Flower

Hey, Snow Flower, sorry I must have missed this when it first went up.

Hard to compare the two dramas because they are such different genres and have a lot of other differences. Just considering the violence and gore element, I think (again, this is tough to weigh with much precision) that Kingdom actually has stretches that are more viscerally gory and probably upsetting (mindless, hyper-violent zombies chowing down on still-living people can be kind of upsetting, you know?). Squid Game has a lot of blood, people being shot (and occasionally stabbed), but not really close ups of brain matter splattering out or anything. In that sense, I think it’s less visceral.

As others have said in comments scattered here and there (and as KFG rightly notes in her post), Squid Game does have a lot more going on than just straight nihilistic torture porn. It wouldn’t be nearly as widely compelling if that were all that was going on (my wife, for instance, really liked it. For what it’s worth 🙂 ).

Medea
Medea
8 months ago

KFanGurl, there may not be such a thing as a professor of Korean entertainments, but you’re more than enough qualified to be one. 🙂

Gloglo
Gloglo
8 months ago

Great post, kfangirl. I’m particularly encouraged by your statement about Squid Game subverting this very insulting misconception out there that Kdramas are for “bored housewives”… I’m so pleasantly surprised that so many people I know telling me (the only kdrama lover they know) about Squid Game, raving about it… I can’t help feeling slightly vindicated, and hoping they finally realise that in general Kdramas are actually well written and have depth -something that, I know, may come as a surprise to a lot of them…

But alas.

Well done to the runners if this show hitting the jackpot, truly. I think their success can only be good for us regular kdrama viewers. Let’s hope so.

reaper
reaper
8 months ago

I really don’t get these shows.
I mean this one is just a mix of hunger games and the SAW movies. Nothing special. It always astounds me how much bloodthirst people have these days. The more violent and gory the better. Is it because they can’t do it in real life and have weird fantasies? I don’t know but seeing how many people respond with euphoria to these things, scares me a bit.

Natalia
Natalia
8 months ago
Reply to  reaper

There is a big part of the audience that does not care about the gore but rather about humans in extreme situations and there is nothing more extreme than that.

reaper
reaper
8 months ago
Reply to  Natalia

Extreme sitiuations? People don’t watch the news? Starving and homeless people around the world. Wars because of stupid reasons like religion. Oppression of people for multiple reason. People disappear if they don’t obey.
I don’t think it is about extreme situations it is just about dark and weird fantasies or some kind of neanderthal DNA that starts acting up.

Gloglo
Gloglo
8 months ago
Reply to  reaper

What I found engaging in this show is the social commentary, as it shows that people can be brutalised if placed in extreme circumstances… I feel it’s a cautionary tale of sorts. This is what European colonisers did in great part of the African continent: they brutalised the indigenous population, making them fight against each other for survival. Kdrama is great escapism, but I also enjoy shows that make me reflect about the world we live in. Squid Game is one of those shows.

beez
8 months ago

Just so we’re clear, I’m not an actual professor of Korean entertainment (is there such a thing?)” quoting KFG

If not you, then pray tell, who is? That’s totally rhetorical.

Natalia
Natalia
8 months ago

To me, hunger games type of shows can never fail. Especially with such high production values, developed characters and great acting. With the exception, as you mention, of the VIPs that once again made me think that kdramas don’t actually cast white actors, they just hire whatever white dude happen to find in Korea (and this is why we get to see the same faces over and over again). They did a good job with the Indian actor though.

Trent
8 months ago
Reply to  Natalia

@Natalia Yes, exactly. Western actors in kdramas are pretty much uniformly terrible. Literally “grab some stiff off of the street” level bad.

You’re right though, they did actually bother to cast someone good for the Pakistani dude’s role. Because that role actually mattered a fair bit, no doubt…

Natalia
Natalia
8 months ago
Reply to  Trent

Yes, this Ali character mattered a lot more, but I won’t lie, I thought the whole VIP thing was so bad that it actually put a halt to my bingewatching for a couple of days!
Coming back to Ali (the actor’s name is Anupam Tripathi by the way), I have already seen him in Strangers from Hell and even there he looked familiar. So I guess he’s the guy they call when they need to cast an Indian/Pakistani character, but at least this guy can act!

beez
8 months ago
Reply to  Natalia

@Natalie – Anupam Tripathi is also in Space Sweepers

JJ
JJ
8 months ago
Reply to  beez

@BEEZ – did you like Space Sweepers?

Trent
8 months ago
Reply to  JJ

I’m not beez, obvs., but I liked it quite a bit. You have to suspend everything you might know about both orbital mechanics and even physics in general (repeat after me: nanotech = magic), but Kim Tae-ri rocks, Song Joong-ki is gonna Song Joong-ki all up in your house, and the kid generates absolutely lethal levels of the cute. Some nice action set pieces, a critique of inequality and injustice that isn’t totally half-assed, and some real heart in the characterizations and character dynamics.

JJ
JJ
8 months ago
Reply to  Trent

@Trent – Oh good, I didnt know you saw this one, fellow Sci Fi/Fantasy Fan. Well, you know, since I know so much about orbital mechanics it might be a tough stretch for me 😉 LOL! Got it – nanotech – magic!

Coldplay & BTS did a Video and featured the characters from Space Sweepers, so I might check it out even though my close Sci Fi buddy here was deeply disappointed. But, he has a high bar and devoted Sci Fi Fan and pays attention to the Orbital mechanics and physics.

Gotta love Sci Fi with Heart! Did you ever see Farscape?!?!!!

beez
8 months ago
Reply to  JJ

@JJ – Farscape (beginning at Season 1, around episode 9) is my junk! Stargate SG1; Battle Star Gallactica (not the one from the ’70’s); Babylon 5; Space, Above and Beyond; Alien Nation; Firefly (Browncoats Forever!)

Oh and of course, I’m an original Trekkie who actually watched it since its original broadcast in 1966. I am THE original BFLERD (Black Female Nerd). 😆

JJ
JJ
8 months ago
Reply to  beez

@BEEZ – Omo! Omo! Omo!!!! Another TRUE Sci Fi Fan!!! OMG!!! I am freaking out with total excitement!!!!! OMO!!!!

YES!!! Exactly Farscape got off to a rough start, but man did it find its lane and excelled there. Did you follow it all the way to the end?!!!! Did you read the story O’Bannon wrote after the TV series ended, but set before the mini series of PW. I could talk about this Show forever!!! One of the best Clone storylines EVER and a fantastic go back in time and muck everything up story lines, too. Sorry total Sci Fan Meltdown over here!! Claudia Black was amazing in Farscape. Loooooove her!!! So. Much.

OMG! BEEZ! Thansk so much for reminding me about Above and Beyond!!! I have been searching for the title of that Show for YEARS! YEARS! Who doesnt love Alien Nation? I love Enemy Mine, too. Heart Clench – Firefly…why did they do that to us and cancel….sigh.

Love BSG…one of the best. If I say more it will be an all day write up 🙂

Woo Hoo!!! An original Trekkie! One of my Sci Buddies is an original Trekkie, too. And a BLERD!!! LOVE. IT. Omo! Omo! Omo!

Did you see Galaxy Quest?!!!! 😂

Thanks for making my Day and responding BEEZ about Sci Fi 🥰🥰🥰

Georgia Peach
8 months ago
Reply to  beez

Another Original Trekki!!!!! We should get beamed up together. “Scottie, you up there??? Beam me up”.

Natalia
Natalia
8 months ago
Reply to  beez

Yes! Beez, thanks!

Trent
8 months ago
Reply to  Natalia

You’re not wrong; the VIPs were pretty caricatured, for sure.

JJ
JJ
8 months ago
Reply to  Trent

@Trent – I was surprised in Dali that the Western Actors werent so bad and pulled of their comedy pretty well since generally its painful seeing Western actors on Kdramas….

Steven
Steven
8 months ago
Reply to  Natalia

I’ve read from the news here in the Philippines that a local Filipino actor was the original candidate for that foreigner role. But due to the pandemic and travel restrictions, he couldn’t fly out and the show selected a foreigner residing in Korea instead.

phl1rxd
phl1rxd
8 months ago

Of course you nailed every point about this drama. This is a stellar post – I am reading it and going “Yep – that point and yep, that point too!” I agree wholeheartedly with everything.

We! finished it up tonight and, in spite of all the violence, I did figure out why I was able to stick with it and I will post that in your review.

What I really hope we do not see is multiple poorly done KDrama ripoffs – we just got through that serial killer phase a little while ago and I do not think the writers have maxed out on the mental health issues phase yet.

KDrama world just showed that even if it veered to the west, by sticking to its basics it remained grounded in SK. It was a strange mixture I have to say. Very strange, but this drama never lost its KSoul. I am really looking forward to your review!

Trent
8 months ago

Good insights, K. I think the emotional hook is an important point…as I was thinking about it, I realized that the actual games themselves and the overt violence attending them take up a relatively small amount of the total running time in each episode–

minor spoilers
heck, episodes 2, 5, and 8 don’t even have a game; episode 2 is entirely in the “real” world, doing more work establishing character backstory and motivation

–which makes sense, because wall-to-wall gratuitous violence would quickly become numbing and boring. (Of course, not all the violence is external; a lot of it is generated from intra-contestant rivalry, a seemingly natural result of the pressures and constraints at play). It’s the character dynamics set in a context of a bizarre game world with brutal consequences (and the internal competition for primacy that results), versus a glimmering hope of gold-at-the-end-0f-the-rainbow reward, that makes it compelling.

I also thing the Netflix effect is a real thing, in ways both large and small, seen and unseen. The binge-all-at-once model has a real effect; when something is super-compelling, the ability to indulge an urge to compulsively gobble down new episodes is an important factor. (Like you, I finished this in a couple days; ditto with DP a few weeks ago). (We see this when we jump into dramas that have completed their run and thus have all their episodes available when we start them: for example, I came to CLOY a few months after it had finished, and so was able to power through it in a matter of days). Viewing momentum really exists, in other words.

I also think that Netflix is bringing qualitative innovations to the field; we can debate whether they are shaking it up in a good direction or not, but I can think of a handful of examples just off the top of my head: I’ve seen a number of sageuk at this point, but nothing to compare to Kingdom, which in addition to its fantastic production values, really seemed to put a different, in ways harder, even in ways more realistic edge on the historical period piece drama (an ironic thing to say about a zombie plague mashup, I realize…)

Or Extracurricular–I haven’t watched much in the high school drama subgenre; not my thing, to say the least–but Extracurricular turned up the standard “high school students got problems” plot several notches, and merrily blew up or ignored the standard tropes in the process. DP…would that ever have gotten made if it were being produced to air on KBS or SBS, or even tvN or OCN? (Granted, as I’ve observed, DP resembles the subplot of Captain Yoon’s army backstory in Prison Playbook in some ways…just as the focus of the whole drama, more or less).

And finally, Netflix is a global OTT distribution titan. It’s a NAME that is deeply known and relied on by the average consumer, in the U.S., yes, but also in many other countries, apparently (I recall well over a decade ago when Netflix was a young upstart company, and we were still receiving DVDs in red paper envelopes through the mail, and mailing them back when finished. What a time!). That provides instant access and baseline credibility both, for the rando normie who would never in a kajillion years search out Viki or Viu to watch something, no matter how good.

Last edited 8 months ago by kfangurl
phl1rxd
phl1rxd
8 months ago
Reply to  Trent

@Trent – no second lead syndrome!

Trent
8 months ago
Reply to  phl1rxd

Yay! Begone! Ye foul love triangles, we abjure thee! 😁

…Oh, reading back over that comment, I should make clear re: Kingdom, when I say “nothing to compare” I don’t mean in the sense there’s nothing better or even as good, I just mean Kingdom seemed really different in some ways (and I ain’t talking the zombies).

phl1rxd
phl1rxd
8 months ago
Reply to  Trent

@Trent – that was clever and a hoot! I thought about you the other day when watching HCCC re: that trope.

Now that I finally! got them to watch SG, I will go to Train to Busan next and maybe I will steer them towards Kingdom right after. Your comment piqued my interest. I have not seen Kingdom yet, but my daughter is a big zombie fan. We watch Sean of the Dead twice a year and it is still dam funny.

Natalia
Natalia
8 months ago
Reply to  phl1rxd

Well, phl1rxd, there’s nothing funny about Kingdom (besides the fact that zombies, in general, can be a little silly at times) but I can tell you this was one of the very first Kdramas I have watched and, as a western viewer, I got hooked by the character depth and development, something you don’t easily get in zombie films (and this is why I usually avoid zombies – too much brainless running about and grunting, but this isn’t the case with Kingdom). Also, I’ll admit that I loved the visuals, and by that I mean in particular the hats (I have seen a ton of sageuk hats since then, but I always think of the hats in Kingdom with fondness…😄).

Trent
8 months ago
Reply to  phl1rxd

Train to Busan is a legit very fine movie–great combo of adrenaline charged action and heart. I got kinda choked up there at the end (you’ll know the scene if you’ve seen it).

Kingdom was one of the first saguek I ever saw (if not the first), and it does have the characteristic palace intrigue and court politics to set the story in motion, but because it is a shorter running time (only 12 episodes over two “seasons”), and it has other fish to fry (i.e. that whole zombie plague thing), it has to be very efficient and economical about it, compared to the more traditional saguek.

I do definitely recommend it, so long as zombies don’t bother you.

Georgia Peach
8 months ago
Reply to  Trent

Trent, please check out Kingdom: Ashin of the North. It’s the prequel to Kingdom. And stars Jun JiHyun. It’s on Netflix.

Trent
8 months ago
Reply to  Georgia Peach

@Georgia Peach Yeah, I watched it not long after it came out. I feel like it suffers from the quite natural tendency to want to compare it to the main Kingdom show. I suspect it would stand up much better on reconsideration if it weren’t subjected to the expectation that it has much tie to the other show.

Two other things to consider: for viewing lens, helps to keep in mind that at its core, it’s a fairly bleak revenge story; and Jun Ji-hyun is just a bit of a bait-and-switch, since she only appears for maybe 25 minutes of the hour and a half running time.

JJ
JJ
8 months ago

You Rock, KFG!!!! Way to go!

JJ
JJ
8 months ago
Reply to  JJ

But you sell yourself short, I think in your Podcast interview or on your About You page didnt you discuss something about majoring in Film? Or am I making that up?!?!!

JJ
JJ
8 months ago
Reply to  kfangurl

@KFG – OPS! I thought I was reading or listening well 😇 Thanks for the clarification 🙂