Every few months, a Netflix Original takes hold of our collective imaginations and earns the coveted status of water-cooler conversation. The latest show to achieve this feat is Hwang Dong hyuk’s Squid Game; a Korean drama/thriller with enough narrative grip to sustain a 9-hour binge-viewing. Not only is it the undisputed no. 1 show in the world right now – it’s on track to become Netflix’s most popular non-English show ever. Man, it might even be more popular than Youtube to mp3 converters right now!
In celebration of this breakthrough, we’re delving into the reasons Squid Game has captured universal attention, in the effort to further understand the decisions that create excellent television.
Understandably Flawed Characters
One of the most devastating pitfalls of scriptwriting is when characters don’t make choices that reflect their personality. In order to become invested in a show’s characters, they need to behave in a way that makes sense, so we can relate, understand and invest in their world. For example, poor character writing is when a wise man forgets his luggage. Good scriptwriting is when a wise man forgets his luggage so he can teach his peers a lesson in the value of belongings.
In the case of Squid Game, our protagonist is a hopelessly addicted gambler – a strange decision, as that’s not a likeable trait. However, the writers create relatability because they give ample time to explore his situation and why he’s ended up in a deadly cycle of gambling. He doesn’t just bet because he wants to. He bets because he truly believes it’s the only way he can get out of the mess he’s created. Creating realism like this ensures audiences become invested in the character, because his choices are understandable, even if they’re not what we would do personally.
Takes Inspiration From Successful Material
Squid Game is an original story, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t had its fair pull from some of literature’s most resonant tales. I like to think of Squid Game as a mesh of Hunger Games and Kill Bill. Like the former, SQ explores the sick pleasure elites derive from pitting the lives of the lower class against each other. However, the show adds the morally myopic edge of Kill Bill to its contests, wrestling their inherent values with the burning desire for revenge, no matter the cost. In summary, there’s an abundance of psychological substance in Squid Game, grounding the excessive violence in an exploration of the human condition. One huge green tick.
Here’s a question. Are you more likely to watch a show if it’s advertised, or if your friend recommends it? The latter right? I believe this is another crucial reason for Squid Games success. The show was barely advertised for Western audiences, however, social media sites such as TikTok had an excess of SQ content on the trending page in no time. Suddenly, the show was a hidden gem to watch – not another show being crammed down your throat by incessant advertising.
One of the biggest challenges TV shows have to address is the ability to keep their viewers invested and coming back for more. Unlike movies, every episode has to stand on its own as well as serving an overarching narrative that continues over many, many hours.
One of the secret sauces TV shows use to keep audiences engaged is… cliffhangers.
A cliffhanger goes something like this:
Introduction, problem, climax, then no resolution until the beginning of next episode.
Our storytelling expectations are so accustomed to payoffs, so being left without a resolution feels like pure torture. TV writers exploit this to keep us coming back, and it works a charm every time. In Squid Game, there’s an episode where we don’t find out what team gets eliminated (killed) until the next episode, and I must confess, it caught me off guard. I was going to go to bed, but the writers reeled me back in to watch one more episode. Nicely done.
Similar to a cliffhanger, twist ending’s are another narrative goldmine that’s proven lucrative over the years. Subverting viewers expectations always guarantees a wide-mouthed moment of shock for the audience, followed by a long discussion about what on earth just happened with fellow viewers of the show.
With Squid Game, a lingering question remains unresolved right until the bitter end. Who is in charge of running the game? And as experienced TV viewers, you just smell a shocking twist ending is on its way. Suddenly, speculations about the ending drive stimulative conversation amongst peers and a deep desire to watch until the end so you can find out what’s going on.
Even better, a twist endings’ impact on the popularity of the show doesn’t stop when the viewing is over. In fact, it’s only getting started. There are already hundreds (probably thousands) of YouTube videos dedicated to analysing and explaining the twist ending, essentially working as free press for the show. Squid Game was written so carefully, that the twist ending is also foreshadowed from the very first episode. Fantastic, gripping stuff, folks.
Keeps the main cast small
Don’t you hate it when a TV show (or movie for that matter) introduces you to too many characters too quickly, and it becomes near-impossible to remember everyone and their traits? Me too. Like most cases, less is more. Squid Game has a carefully selected batch of characters that they focus on, enabling viewers to fully invest their observations without missing a beat.
Fewer main characters also allow for writers to give these characters more nuanced, complicated attributes, making them more believable and relatable. Throughout the show, we learn almost every characters backstory, motivations, and personality type. This depth would have been sacrificed if the show tried to introduce too many characters into our memory.
Watch it before it’s spoilt!
Personally, I couldn’t recommend Squid Game enough. It’s fantastic to see a Korean show perform so well, and even better, its success is well deserved. It’s one of the most carefully constructed narratives of recent, and I promise you that once you’re hooked, it’s very hard to switch it off.