Squid Game Feeds Our Hunger For Reality TV Injuries And Humiliations | Squid game
This article contains spoilers for the Netflix Squid Game series
South Korean survival drama Squid Game seems like the one thing everyone’s talking about, having reached No.1 on Netflix in 90 countries and become the subject of endless memes and conversations. In it, the contestants – among them a migrant from Pakistan, a North Korean refugee, a terminally ill pensioner, and a gambling addict and all, for various reasons, interested in a cash prize – compete with hundreds of others to death, in violent iterations of childhood games, all overseen by strange masked henchmen. It’s surreal, but also anchored in reality; in South Korea, household debt is now over 100% of GDP. While Nineteen Eighty-Four, Black Mirror, and The Handmaid’s Tale feel less and less like dystopian works as the world gets worse, Squid Game also feels oddly cautious.
Show director Hwang Dong-hyuk says Squid Game is an allegory of modern capitalism, but it’s also aimed at what we see as entertainment. Later in the series, it is revealed that the ghoulish games are watched by millionaires who bet on the odds of players from a lavish VIP lounge filled with champagne and chandeliers. Watching the contestants fight for money and their lives is horrible, especially when we realize this is being done for the enjoyment of an audience. Like many TV shows and movies, it examines our obsession with seeing people in pain, and uses the conventions of competitive television to do so.
Indeed, like the Roman Colosseum, reality TV continues our tendency to see others being hurt and humiliated, making it the perfect base for drama. The series’ games and visuals reference Japanese shows such as Takeshi’s Castle and Za Gaman (The Endurance), whose DNA is found in the Bushtucker essays of I’m a Celebrity. Behavioral experiences films and survival dramas such as Circle, Battle Royale and The Killing Room fascinate because of their understanding of the human psyche and how far we will go to win or survive, a fundamental tenet in everything from Survivor at The Bachelor. Squid Game does that, but takes it a step further by asking those of us who are looking across the screen. In this case, they are the morally sterile super-rich, but on average, they are ordinary people.
It would be too far to say that Squid Game is a warning from the future (I hope not anyway, but if the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that anything can happen) but it seems premonitory. Also, a culture that seems extreme and unrealistic often takes on another aspect after a few years, when it then spills over into reality TV. The 1968 BBC television play The Year of the Sex Olympics looked at the societal effects of television and focused on a program called The Live Life Show, following a group of abandoned people to themselves on a remote island. At the time, the idea of an unscripted soap opera was crazy, but the play is now cited as having anticipated Big Brother, Castaway, and Survivor. Likewise, the 24-hour surveillance and fame for nothing of The Truman Show seemed dystopian in 1998, but less so now, as we gladly document our own lives via Instagram Stories and Facebook live streams.
Black Mirror offered many examples of this interdependence, commenting not only on our ever-growing reliance on technology, but also our instant celebrity culture and reality TV ethics. In Fifteen Million Merits, arguably the strongest episode in the franchise, a pre-Get Out Daniel Kaluuya inhabits an entirely gray and not-so-distant future, surrounded by a continuous stream of entertainment and advertising on screens that cover all surfaces. The only potential reprieve is a British-style Got Talent competition called Hot Shot, where winners lead lives of luxury. Charlie Brooker had previously probed reality TV in 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 crumble on live TV seems even more timely than it did back then. In 2020, the series was remade by Netflix as Reality Z, set in Rio rather than Elstree.
Ultimately, Squid Game doesn’t show us where reality TV is heading, but makes a statement about what humans are capable of enjoying. Indeed, the success of competitive series often depends on the debasement of others – although, thankfully, not their bloody deaths.