Masked men love inviting hundreds of people to private islands to participate in death games, especially when it's to prove a point that probably could've been proven without building an underground crematorium. It's a wasteful approach to ethics studies for sure, but it makes for great TV, so chuck Squid Game into the old Netflix queue if you haven't already.
The nine-episode Korean series was obviously inspired by Battle Royale, the 2000 movie that gave the videogame genre its name, but shuffles in the unpredictability of a janky CS:GO minigame mod, to stretch a little for a game comparison. It's videogame-adjacent, let's say: It features adults playing children's games (one way to describe the staff of PC Gamer at times) and there's some thematic kinship, like lots of unnecessary murder. Squid Game is certainly the most violent show I've watched recently.
The official description on Netflix is intentionally evasive. “Hundreds of cash-strapped players accept a strange invitation to compete in children's games,” it says. Any media-aware person will be certain about where the show is going from the start, but the first episode builds anticipation for as long as it reasonably can with a story about a dad evading gambling debts. The tone is soapy at times, frequently comedic and hard to call serious—Uncut Gems is a very different kind of story about a Gambling Debts Dad—but you'd also struggle to call Squid Game upbeat. Especially not once the shooting starts.
When the violence kicks off for real, the scale and coldness of it is mildly shocking, even for a horror fan. Rather than lingering on gruesome injuries, inviting us to appreciate the artistry and excess of the practical effects like a Tarantino film would, Squid Game just gets on with things, with few exceptions. That's what makes it feel so brutal: Outside of a few emotional sendoffs, the contestants are treated with even more indifference than GTA pedestrians, sometimes even by each other. Headshots are delivered like offsides violations.
The rest of the show stays eerily lighthearted in contrast by focusing on the schoolyard dynamics that emerge among the players of these deadly kids' games: bullies, tattletales, gossips, cheaters. It's also fun for how thoroughly Squid Game buys into its world, where vans are rigged with sleeping gas and soldiers who wear identical masks have sorted out a system for figuring out who's supposed to be where. Whenever it gets back to the games, it never misses an opportunity to explore the cruelest implications of its premise. I somehow failed to foresee a couple of the meanest twists despite them being bleedingly obvious, and “I should've known that would happen” is a fun reaction to have.
Squid Game's ending goes out of its way to segue into a potential second season, which is slightly disappointing in a show that otherwise dishes out finality, contrasting physical death with the drawn out suffering of social death. There are also some English-language parts in the latter half that are so mortifyingly bad they nearly ruin the conclusion, but perhaps that's just comeuppance for all the times American shows have botched the directing of non-English parts without me noticing. Be prepared to stick them out, and try to appreciate the meta comedy of the show cutting from what sounds like Americans yelling an erotic Twitter roleplay thread at each other to the lead Korean actors giving it their all.
Squid Game is number one on Netflix for the second week in a row, so recommending it now feels a bit like pointing out that Drake put out a new album, but I almost skipped it myself. The bright colors and cheesy-looking PlayStation button masks had me expecting something like 'Black Mirror meets TikTok Fortnite memes' at first glance. It isn't that, and for the still-skeptical, I can at least guarantee that it's better than the other stuff I'm seeing in the Netflix Top 10 right now, such as a show in which people “catfish their way toward $100,000.” (I guess Netflix's next big bet aside from making videogames is 'Black Mirror, but let's do it for real.')
And if watching Squid Game gets you wondering what it'd be like to play its Jokerified versions of playground games, the Roblox community already has that covered.