Exploring the popularity of Squid Game — when extreme goes mainstream

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There is an infrequently discussed sub-genre in movies known as extreme cinema. While I have by no means conducted studies, I assume the reason that the subgenre is so scantily discussed is that it inherently appeals to few individuals.

The genre is characterized by extremes. The genre usually refers to  films with extreme violence,  sexual content (often a mix of the two) and shocking plots.

There are some examples that you’ve likely at least heard of; The Human Centipede (2009), Saw (2004), maybe Natural Born KIllers (1994) come to mind. There are many more that have smaller cult followings, (many of them are international films) like Saló (1975), Ichi the Killer (2001) and Oldboy (2003) just to name a few. These films are often hard to track down and watch.

While the critically acclaimed Squid Game isn’t the most extreme example of extreme cinema, it’s about as close to the line that I’ve seen a show approach.

Surprisingly, while I mentioned before that such entertainment usually only appeals to a select few, Squid Game has become a pop culture sensation in a relatively short amount of time. I think this trend can be better understood within the context of extreme cinema as a whole.

Why do people like extreme cinema in the first place? One answer to that question is  simple; some people want to watch something different. There are many different shows and movies out there but most of them share  some form of predictability.

How predictable a product is ranges but there are certain lines entertainment tends not to cross.As an audience, we pick up on it. One of the main things mainstream entertainment tends to avoid is displaying things that are (for lack of a better term) fucked up. We may get our grizzly murderers, our graphic sex scenes, perhaps a plot twist or two – but rarely do we see a show that really pushes the boundary of what is acceptable.

This is why some love extreme cinema for not only pushing the boundary, but suprassing it. Rather than condoning R-rated themes, it actively encourages them and brings audiences a unique viewing experience. 

In this day and age, entertainment often feels stale. We have dozens of  medical and teen dramas, movies that are either sequels or adaptations and hundreds of YouTubers with the same personality.

Perhaps Squid Game was an extreme we were pushed to rather than something we discovered. When we get tired of watching dramas with low stakes, we often choose to watch one where the consequences are life and death.

When we become bored with reality TV, we watch a parody of it with biting social commentary. In Squid Game, people are killed ruthlessly. We see a side to humanity we can all relate to. We are reminded of how greedy we are and how we act when we are pushed to our limit. It is impressive how the creators of the show were able to insert grounded characters with understandable motivations into such a wacky setting. Squid Game uses extreme situations to show people at their worst and their best.

While I did mention  that other forms of entertainment were the cause of Squid Game’s success, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give credit to the show itself. The creators  take an interesting concept and execute its full potential. The bluntness of the games  keeps them interesting. There’s something to be said about simplicity. Having all the games be children’s activities is a neat juxtaposition with the dire consequences of being eliminated.

Our protagonist, Seong, has a  satisfying arc over the course of the nine episodes. There are several villains, some one-note while others were effective. However, there was one that I particularly hated. There are even a few characters that are martyred,  adding an emotional punch to the plot.
All of these concept and character choices are at the heart of every good series. What sets Squid Game apart is its willingness to include common tropes of extreme entertainment. While graphic violence has been on a steady rise in television, I suspect Squid Game will only influence more studios to try their hand at something similar. With season one being  a success, a second season seems imminent.

Will Squid Game tone down the gore? Will they add more of it? There are few things more difficult than following an opening season that was so well received. I sincerely hope they don’t try to duck underneath their newfound spotlight.

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