Netflix is notoriously tight-lipped about viewership numbers, so it can feel rather fishy when the company announces that, say, thirty zillion people watched Adam Sandler’s Murder Mystery in its first weekend. Perhaps the reason it feels that way is because when the streamer has a genuine cultural hit on its hands—like Stranger Things, Bridgerton, or Lupin—those shows dominate the digital water cooler. You can practically feel their impact in the air.
What you likely sense coursing through the jetstream right now is all the tension and viscera radiating out of a South Korean series called Squid Game.
Released less than two weeks ago, Squid Game has sat atop Netflix’s global top 10 charts since Friday, September 24—an extraordinary feat for a show that doesn’t have the built-in audience of the hit comedy Sex Education, currently in its third season, which Squid Game dethroned. The show is already well on its inevitable way to being Netflix’s biggest non-English series ever, and co-CEO Ted Sarandos now estimates that at its current rate, Squid Game could become the most popular Netflix series ever, period. Not bad for a show with a goofy-sounding name that came seemingly out of nowhere.
Jung-jae Lee stars as Seong Gi-hun, a deadbeat dad neck-deep in debt who gets ensnared in a financially irresistible survival competition based on traditional Korean children’s games. In each round of games, such as Red Light, Green Light and the titular Squid Game (way too complicated to explain in this parenthetical), Gi-hun and his competitors fight to the death in hopes of making it to the next level and eventually winning a grand prize worth $39.4 million. The number of players who die horrible deaths in this pursuit, even in just the first episode, is staggering.
Why is a show you’ve never heard of pulling in the kind of viewership numbers typically reserved for Stranger Things and Bridgerton? Created by Hwang Dong-hyuk, who made the film The Fortress, the show touches on similar themes of underclass desperation and exploitation explored by the last South Korean export to take over the world: Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. Themes of class struggle are timeless, but they’ve certainly become more popular recently as inequality has widened in many places around the globe.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt the show’s popularity that it is brutally violent, unrelentingly tense, and follows in the footsteps of 2000’s landmark Japanese hit Battle Royale, as well as The Hunger Games series, which was consistently tagged as being derivative of it. Add in the self-perpetuating power of already being super popular and it’s no wonder you’ll be hearing a lot more about Squid Game—and its creator’s future projects—going forward.