Away from the halls of Congress, state legislatures, and hometown chambers across the land—beyond what activists are doing to address thorny issues of our times—there is a global phenomenon worth noting. It’s a choice being made by everyday people. They are viewing Netflix’s new offering, Squid Game. In less than two months, the South Korean production has become the most-watched Netflix offering ever.
Why care? Squid Game focuses on “a desperately indebted group of people in South Korea. They're first tricked into a deadly tournament of children's games, but then many of them volunteer to come back, realizing the games may be their only chance to win the money they need to survive.” That is what Squid Game is. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni characterizeswhat Squid Game represents. It is "a portrait of life as a sadistic lottery...and poverty as a hopeless torture chamber. (It is) ... a bullet to the soul."
Spewing blood and gore with personal despair as its stage, Squid Game should shock sensibilities. The backdrop involves backs-against-the-wall contestants putting their lives on the line. In the opening episode, hundreds of contestants dressed in prison-like jumpsuits are shown in a life-or-death contest as a shifty-eyed, epic-sized doll shouts, "Green Light! (move forward) and Red Light! (stop). Contestants follow her orders, moving and stopping as the clock counts down the seconds.
Then, guns blaze and contestants drop (dead) as an overseer watches from the comfort of his distant viewing station, sipping a cold libation all the while. We watch the gory action listening to a big-band arrangement of the popular 1950s/60's era love song, Fly Me to the Moon. Make no mistake, though. There is no love here. The surreal scene of people being shot to death while his song plays probably has Bart Howard, "Moon's" songwriter, spinning in this grave.
The juxtaposition of an iconic American love song with fallen/piled-up bodies should tell us all we need to know about this nasty brew. But for every person who tells me they have clipped the program from their viewing schedule, another says they'll keep viewing.
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Is there redeeming quality to what they experience? Screenwriter/director Hwang Dong-hyuk based the story on economic struggles in his life, which he views as a personal experience with the social class divide in South Korea. But how and why this version emerged from his pen is the stuff of which a thousand commentaries are made. The storyline could have been dramatized in so many other ways, including a call to fix the social ills that contribute to what is being depicted on the screen. Call to action? Not. It’s “entertainment.”
Today, people around the world are applauding, wanting more. Mesmerizing. It has me on the edge of my seat. I can't wait for the next episode. I hear a defense, too. What's the harm in watching? Fiction. Fantasy. It’s not real.
Ok. Then why this? "Schools are issuing statements to warn parents to keep their children away from the show, as children are starting to act out the games from the show at school. For example, according to CNET, “one school in Belgium is reporting that kids are mimicking the show on the playground, and beating up those who lose the games.” And consider this: there have been 437 deaths by way of mass murders in the U.S. in 2021, and there were 19,380 gun deaths in the U.S. in 2020. That's real, life, non-fiction.
I do not endorse restricting artistic boundaries or censoring content. What bothers me is that Squid Game is not just another production (in a long line of productions) that has achieved niche/cult status. We're talking mainstream here. It's what millions of people are viewing and talking about all over the world.
That's the most disturbing thing about Squid Game. The camera isn’t just on desperate people in green sweatsuits. It’s very much on us.