This article contains spoilers for the Netflix series Squid Game
South Korean survival drama Squid Game seems to be the only thing that’s talked about, having reached # 1 on Netflix in 90 countries and become the subject of endless memes and conversations. In it, the contestants, including a migrant from Pakistan, a North Korean refugee, a terminally ill pensioner, and a gambling addict – all, for various reasons, interested in a cash prize, compete with hundreds of others until death, in violent iterations. from childhood games, all supervised by creepy masked henchmen. It is surreal, but also rooted in reality; in South Korea, household debt is now more than 100% of GDP. Like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Black Mirror and The Handmaid’s Tale feel less and less like dystopian jobs, the worse the world gets, Squid Game feels strangely wary too.
The show’s director, Hwang Dong-hyuk, says that Squid Game is an allegory of modern capitalism, but it also points to what we consider entertainment. Later in the series, it is revealed that the spooky games are being watched by millionaires gambling on the players’ chances from a luxurious VIP room filled with champagne and chandeliers. Watching the contestants fight for money and their lives is shocking, even more so when we realize that this is done to amuse the audience. Like many television shows and movies, it examines our obsession with watching people suffer and uses the conventions of competition television to do so.
In fact, like the Roman Coliseum, reality TV continues our propensity to see others get hurt and humiliated, making it the perfect base for drama. The games and visuals in the series reference Japanese shows such as Takeshi’s Castle and Za Gaman (The Endurance), whose DNA can be found in the Bushtucker essays for I’m a Celebrity. Movies about behavioral experiments and survival dramas like Circle, Battle Royale, and The Killing Room fascinate for their insights into the human psyche and how far we’ll go to win or survive, a fundamental tenet in everything from Survivor to The Bachelor. Squid Game does this, but goes a step further by interrogating those of us who watch from the other side of the screen. In this case, they are the morally sterile super-rich, but on an average day, they are average people.
It would be too far to say that Squid Game is a warning of the future (I hope not anyway, but if the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that anything can happen) but it feels prescient. Also, culture that seems extreme and unrealistic often looks different after a few years, when then fed back on reality TV. In 1968, the BBC television play The Year of the Sex Olympics analyzed the social effects of television and focused on a program called The Live Life Show, which followed a group of people who left to fend for themselves on a remote island. At that time, the idea of a soap opera without a script was crazy, but now it is cited that the play had foreseen Big Brother, Castaway and Survivor. Likewise, The Truman Show’s 24-hour surveillance and fame for nothing seemed dystopian in 1998, but less so now, as we voluntarily document our own lives via Instagram Stories and Facebook livestreams.
Black Mirror has offered many examples of this interdependence, commenting not only on our growing dependence on technology, but on our culture of instant fame and the ethics of reality TV. In Fifteen Million Merits, arguably the franchise’s strongest episode, a pre-Get Out Daniel Kaluuya inhabits a completely gray and not-too-distant future, surrounded by a continuous stream of entertainment and advertising on screens that cover all surfaces. The only potential relief is a Britain’s Got Talent-style contest called Hot Shot, where the winners go on to live lives of luxury. Charlie Brooker had previously researched reality TV on Dead Set, the underrated E4 series set in Big Brother’s house during a zombie apocalypse. It was made in 2008, but watching the world fall apart on live TV feels even more timely than it did then. In 2020, Netflix remade the series as Reality Z, which takes place in Rio, instead of Elstree.
Ultimately, Squid Game doesn’t show us where reality TV is going, but it does make a statement about what humans are capable of enjoying. In fact, the success of competitive series often hinges on the degradation of others, though, thankfully, not on their bloody deaths.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism