TV Review: Squid Game (Season 1, 2021)

A Netflix original series from Hwang Dong-Hyuk, season one of Squid Game (originally 오징어 게임) was released in 2021. To win a share of a huge cash prize, players are selected by a mysterious organisation to take part in a series of six children’s playground games, though the true nature of the games are soon revealed. Gambling addict, deeply indebted part-time chauffeur Seong Gi-Hun (Lee Jung-jae) joins the game, and is given a player number, alongside hundreds of others, including: Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), a well educated man wanted by police for fraud; Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon) an alleged North Korean defector who wants the money to help her family come to the South; an elderly, senile man (O Yeong-su) with a terminal brain tumour, who is playing the game just for fun before his inevitable death; Abdul Ali (Anupam Tripathi), a Pakistani factory worker attempting to provide for his young family; and, the dangerous gangster Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae) who has large gambling debts to repay.

+ the full cast of characters are unique, and very easy to either get behind or despise as required. A dozen or so are given more characterisation than others, and the backstories never feel overly trite or cheap the way these ensemble cast affairs often can. My personal favourites were the gangster and the old man, but I admittedly am a sucker for getting emotional when old people are involved
+ generally speaking, it’s a fun take on the battle royale genre through a Saw/Escape Room style lens. It is certainly not unique — it takes many cues from other similar media, such as the manga/anime franchise Kaiji, the other Netflix series Alice in Borderland and the new wave of battle royale video games — but adds a few new twists of its own. The games themselves are always tense and brutal (and sometimes surprisingly emotional), and you’ll never quite know what to expect next, just like the competitors themselves
+ there is a lot of fantastic foreshadowing to the fates of most characters, if you are paying attention. I admit I only caught a few of them myself, but upon reading about it all later I was very pleasantly surprised

– with six games to play spread across nine episodes, the series absolutely peaks in episode 6, and slightly overstays its welcome in the final episode. Even given time for backstories, side-stories, a series opening/set up and the inevitable epilogue, there was a lot of stuff that could have easily been cut or trimmed down
– the new characters introduced in episode seven, unnamed for spoiler reasons, actively drag down the show to the point I considered not watching anymore. Every appearance from them for the rest of the series made me cringe with embarrassment and disgust at myself for continuing to watch. I am contemplating downloading and editing the first season myself just to remove their scenes so any rewatch can be actually enjoyable
– one major sub plot is rendered entirely irrelevant (though I am ready to be proven wrong in a season two). Similarly, there are a few lines from important characters that seem like they might be something we’ll see more of, or should at least pay attention to as viewers, but they are quickly forgotten
– I can give or take series/movies for having some wonky internal logic, but the trick is they have to stick to that internal logic. The games are ostensibly meant to be fair and equal for everyone, so however many winners of the prize there are they have all earned it. But that is time and time again priven to be untrue. The games are not fair and equal at all, and indeed only the first of the six games involves following any sort of rules; unfair advantages are allowed to players in some games but not others, and it just frustrated me as a viewer more than thinking the odds were stacked against my favourite characters
– good gosh almighty, do not watch this with the English dubbed voices. I cringed watching the trailer, and watched about 30 minutes of one episode in English to get a feel for it. Never again

> the episodes are approximately 50-60 minutes in length – except for episode 8, which is only half that. I was very confused at first, thinking that somehow an hour of my life had flown by
>I’ll be completely honest: I still don’t know the rules to the titular Squid Game, despite them being mentioned in detail a few times

Should you watch this show: I enjoyed this and would say it was good if not great. But the more cynical side of me can’t help but think many are blowing this out of proportion: maybe they’ve never watched a foreign series before, or maybe they are unfamiliar with this survival/battle royale genre. I think you’ll enjoy most of this too, but I can’t say put it on the pedestal many are.

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