The first episode of Squid Game, the South Korean dystopian drama that became not only the biggest TV show of the year, but also the most popular Netflix series of all time, has a lot of hooks: a protagonist underdog, an intriguing high-stakes mystery, the thrill of watching a widely recognizable childhood game made it a matter of life and death. But the real kick-start of the series comes in the second episode: players, each facing financial ruin for various reasons, vote to quit the eponymous game and come back to their lives, to find the allure of a better bet. with the crushing weight of debt. At the end of the second episode, everyone chose to return to Squid Game, with a prize pool of 45.6 billion won ($ 40 million) literally hanging from the ceiling.
It’s an incredibly dark message – that people find the odds of surviving a sadistic game more favorable than achieving financial stability outside of it – that has struck a chord with millions of people who live our time. dark and very unfair period. Squid Game’s unwavering brutality was a good match for a year in which the richest 745 Americans alone made enough money to fund more than half of Biden’s beleaguered social spending plan, in which the billionaires conducted their cock-swaying contest in space, and in which Fox News shot an attempted coup in Republican orthodoxy (and profit).
Though the bloodiest, Squid Game isn’t the only popular show this year to feature a sinister reflection of our economic system: The White Lotus, HBO’s flagship summer, hit about a week in a decadent resort town and morally decadent Hawaii, sent the privileges of wealth and its self-delusion with sharp teeth and lush visuals; The third season of HBO’s Succession, arguably the most animated drama on television right now, once again found its family of media moguls (loosely based on the Murdochs, owner of Fox News) being miserable again, turned ruining with wickedness and American democracy without a thought, and still evading responsibility.
Rid these three shows of their sharp beards or sexual tension or meticulous dressing, and you will find the same molten black core: an economic system so layered and shattered that it is inescapable, invincible (in the timeline of these stories). ), and toxic from top to bottom. In everyone, emotional misery is a given, and ultimately preferable to the cession of any privilege. The American Dream and much of the American media have long idealized the pursuit of money and the whims of the rich, but there is absolutely nothing enviable or ambitious about the rich about these shows.
Dark parables or portraits of capitalism are of course not unique to 2021 – in Western media see: the Hunger Games series, the popularity of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite or the wacky satire of Sorry to Disturb You. The idea that money can’t buy happiness isn’t new to television either – HBO has practically created a subgenre for miserable and / or terrible rich whites, from Big Little Lies to The Undoing.
But what is striking about this year’s crop of shows is how little redemption they offer, how little comfort they find in the capitalist status quo. Squid Game’s competitors sever and form loyalties and betray each other – weaknesses of human morality under pressure – for (minor spoiler) the sport of ultra-rich Americans, with no character able to stop the crushing wheel of the game The White Lotus runs through a merry-go-round of emotional exploitation that doesn’t spare even the nicest characters, and ends more or less where it started: a new series of waiting guests arrives as the old s ‘In goes, the combustions and the revelations having made little difference. It’s easier to focus on the perceived contempt of a barely smaller hotel suite, or to cover up infidelity with $ 70,000 bracelets, or to stay in a clearly terrible new marriage, than to change. .
The somewhat frustrating third season of Succession went through the same emotional abuse dynamic that it has perfected since its first season, but the richness remains the trump card. Nothing sticks with Waystar Royco – not a cover-up sexual assault scandal in its cruise division, not the threat of a hostile takeover by their main rival, not a federal investigation into corporate malfeasance, not even political headwinds. The Justice Department is coming for Waystar, and even that’s not enough – Patriarch Logan Roy runs his channel, a Fox News replacement, to pressure the Republican President, a former ally derisively dubbed “The Raisin,” l ‘forcing him to give up considering a second term. The characters in Succession are each sad and pathetic in their own way, but the world is set up so that the Roys, and especially Logan, never suffer true loss.
These shows aren’t so much anti-capitalist (they’re on Netflix and HBO after all, and none imagines a different way, though that’s admittedly a lot to ask of entertainment) as fiercely about the present, which doesn’t seem to be working. for anyone – not resort staff and vacationers tied in awkward contracts, not billionaire media heirs whose wealth isolates them from human emotion, and certainly not ordinary debtors who would rather try their luck in a perverse tournament than to face the fight of scratching in the real world.
To be clear, I liked each of these shows for their own reasons, laughed more at their sharp writing than a lot of comedies. But sometimes I wonder if we’ve hit rock bottom with TV sadness. It can be gloriously refreshing to watch TV that dares to admit that things are very, very bad, and in 2021 some of the best shows have dressed this dark pit of advanced capitalism with deliciously deranged dialogue, bordering on suspense. seat, gorgeous Hawaiian panoramas, Halloween costume – worthy outfits, a performance by Jennifer Coolidge for the ages. But they still stare down at the pit, sparing no one the poison. Hope, collectivism, imaginary otherwise? It may be 2022.