In 2021, Netflix users across the globe watched 1.4bn hours of Squid Game, and that was only in the first 23 days after it was released. The stunning statistics don’t stop there: it was binged by 142 million households and performed better than 79 per cent of other streamable shows. Two weeks after it was released, it was the most in-demand show in the world – and it hadn’t even enjoyed the luxury of a pre-release marketing campaign.
First aired on 17 September 2021, the series seemed obscure. The premise is a gruesome life-or-death tournament better-known as the Squid Game. The debt-ridden players, with nothing to lose but themselves, enter the games to compete for a massive cash prize.
Each episode focuses on a simple playground game: the best-known being the first episode’s “Green Light, Red Light”, in which we see 200 out of the 456 players shot to the ground. (We later learn that the mastermind behind this death machine has a certain nostalgia for childhood; playground games being the only time he could remember feeling joy.)
Usually this flavour of macabre would remain on the fringes of our streaming sites, but somehow the show’s painfully endearing contestants found their own mass audience.
So how did this off-beat show become a worldwide obsession? Perhaps because Squid Game went beyond gore. As each episode played out, we watched closely for a glimmer of mercy or even further depths cruelty – for an understanding of what a person on the brink of death is capable of.
At its heart, Squid Game is an honest look at how desperation can change us. It searches for an answer to the terrifying question: with nothing left to lose, what would you do for survival? It was its humanity that had us hooked.
Find the other entries in the New Statesman A-Z of 2021 here.