South Korean Dramas: It’s Not Just Squid Game

Other notable shows from the world’s trendiest entertainment market

With the viral success of the Netflix drama Squid Game, South Korean media in general is once again in focus, and there are thinkpieces galore on the subject of what special, uniquely distinctly Korean quality it is that makes Squid Game popular. I won’t get into the aesthetics of Squid Game, but I feel comfortable asserting that Squid Game is closer to Gangnam Style in longterm zeitgeist influence than Parasite. Not that even Parasite left that much of a footprint. It’s obvious a lot of people going all-in on the anticapitalism interpretation still had Parasite fresh on their mind going into Squid Game, and not much else from South Korea.

Which is disappointing, because South Korean dramas may well be the biggest TV show trend of which you haven’t heard. It took nearly a month for Squid Game to become the most popular South Korean drama even on the 2021 leaderboard. Previously that honor went to Vincenzo, the mafia thriller turned screwball comedy. Vincenzo is now in 12th place. It wasn’t alone on the list either. The medical drama Hospital Playlist, which started a second season this year, is at 53rdplace. followed by the meditative art school romance Nevertheless at 54th. The reality bending sci-fi thriller Sisyphus: The Myth is at 63nd.

South Korean
‘Vincenzo.’

FlixPatrol, which keeps a running tally of the best performing programs on Netflix and other platforms sources all these numbers. The system isn’t perfect–because the numbers are relative, they overrepresent smaller countries and underrepresent larger ones. But they’re the best data we have about what shows people are actually watching on Netflix.

The popularity of Korean dramas, even on Netflix, isn’t new. The inter-Korean romance Crash Landing on You premiered in late 2019, but saw a massive boost thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, such that South Korean drama production companies like Studio Dragon started upping their production budgets and ambitions in response to the massive windfall. Itaewon Class, a trendy show about a restaurant entrepreneur set in Seoul’s most ethnically diverse district, followed shortly. Both of these shows, as well as the ones above, have their own cult fandoms.

There are many aesthetic reasons for the differing receptions. But on the production level, Squid Game is most distinct in that its a Netflix original. Netflix exclusively financed it for their streaming platform.  South Korean companies produced the abovementioned dramas domestically. They’re also available on domestic platforms in South Korea. Netflix just holds the exclusive international distribution rights–and they tend to be more popular in non-English speaking countries. For all the controversy about the Squid Game English language dub, Crash Landing on You doesn’t even have an English-language dub. But it does have one in Spanish.

Some commentators have noticed this distinction, but only to suggest that Netflix is doing the world a service by financing creatively significant work that more antiquated local producers are rejecting. The story of how Squid Game director Hwang Dong-hyuk had his pitch turned down by local companies in South Korea has already widely caught on, echoing a previous similar public relations narrative about The Queen’s Gambit.

This obscures a great deal of context about how people produce television dramas in South Korea, or anywhere else. Studios reject most pitches several times before they find an audience, even if they come from a qualified person. Hwang Dong-yuk is a quite competent director. But his work has been in film. He had no experience with long-form projects, nor do any of his previous films even remotely resemble Squid Game stylistically or thematically.

It’s also completely unfounded to say that the South Korean drama industry isn’t willing to entertain extreme imagery or political allegory. There’s an entire genre of South Korean dramas, the infamous Makjang, that deals in outrageous over-the-top situations, often to a mockworthy extent. Last year The Penthouse fused makjang plotting with prestige style cinematography to create a ratings record-breaking story about cutthroat upper class parents willing to go to criminal lengths to secure the future of their children.

Ten weeks before Squid Game saw the premiere of The Devil Judge, about a live TV show where the title character dispenses justice against the untouchable powerful people of society. Neither show is for the squeamish. Blood and death recur quite often. The main reason you haven’t heard of them is because Rakuten Viki–a streaming platform with nowhere near the global reach of Netflix–broadcasts them internationally.

South Korean
‘The Devil Judge’

Yet despite these advantages, Netflix hasn’t exactly been lighting the world on fire with its original South Korean content over the same timeframe. It’s telling that their heavily promoted sci-fi film Space Sweepers, despite being reasonably well-watched and also having an unsubtle capitalism allegory, has not been on the tips of everyone’s tongues during Squid Game hype. D.P, a prestige drama from August about military police, has likewise been absent from the conversation despite featuring similarly disturbing social commentary about the unsettled mental state of young South Korean men forced to do mandatory military service. Other Netflix originals have been even more forgettable. You might have heard of the zombie historical drama Kingdom when it was new, but if you missed the prequel movie released over the summer, you weren’t the only one.

For what it’s worth, Netflix has been course-correcting. Having earned middling notice for genre specific work like Love Alarm and Move to Heaven, D.P was the start of a big shift for Netflix into more prestige-oriented programming, and not exactly a dramatic success. Yet Squid Game performed so explosively that the fate of the others is now up in the air. They haven’t promoted the crime thriller My Name, featuring Nevertheless star Han So-hee, at all despite the fact that it appeared at the Busan International Film Festival.

In November Hellbound, from Train to Busan director Yeon Sang-ho, adapts the webtoon version of his early animated films regarding mysterious otherworldly entities who tell people when they’re going to die, and then murder them at that exact time. The The Silent Sea, an introspective science fiction series starring Gong Yoo (possibly better known as The Slapping Man from Squid Game to those who don’t follow South Korean entertainment culture) is expected in December. Beyond that, who can say? But if Squid Game actually inspired you to be more interested in South Korean media, those titles and any of the others in this article are names to watch.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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