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Stop comparing every Korean drama to ‘Squid Game’

Netflix has been producing original Korean dramas since roughly 2018, its first original series being the 2-season romantic drama “Love Alarm,” followed by other beloved shows like the zombie period drama “Kingdom,” the revenge coming-of-age “Itaewon Class” and the uplifting medical show “Hospital Playlist.” From these brief summaries alone, Netflix has proven itself to be capable of producing a number of versatile Korean dramas matching with those of mainstream Korean television networks like JTBC or TvN. And, as someone who has been watching Korean dramas since elementary school, I can attest to the fact that the Netflix-produced Korean dramas are good. Just as Netflix is with its American shows, the Netflix-produced Korean dramas are a bit more willing to delve into more explicit scenes that wouldn’t fly in Korean mainstream television. Think blood and gore that you would find in the apocalyptic drama “Sweet Home,” the steamier, not-quite-sex scene-but-an-implied-sex-scene in the action thriller “My Name” and, my personal favorite, the B-plot friends-to-lovers queer love story in the romantic “Nevertheless.” Netflix has, in many ways, both opened the doors to international audiences in appreciating the art of the Korean drama, as well as expanded on storylines that mainstream Korean drama writers were tentative or could not explore. 

Now, my name-dropping of all these Netflix-produced Korean dramas is not meant to be a proud little pat on the back for myself (yes, Caroline, you’ve watched or have heard enough of these shows, good for you). Rather, all of these name drops and brief blurbs are meant to get to the crux of my issue with the Korean drama scene lately: that despite this huge variety in Korean dramas, people have still been attempting to pitch every single dark Netflix Korean drama as the next “Squid Game.” 

For those who have somehow been living under a rock lately, “Squid Game” is a Netflix-produced Korean drama about a group of financially struggling people who enter a series of horrific games in order to win money. It is a fantastic show in its own right, with a stellar cast and an incredibly hard-hitting message about how society fails its citizens. However, since its release, people have simply over-exhausted “Squid Game,” holding the show up as some pinnacle of Korean drama success—and as a result, are acting as though this is the only fantastic Korean drama worth watching. 

Don’t believe me? About a month after “Squid Game’s” release, Netflix released another original Korean drama called “Hellbound”—yet another incredibly dark show, albeit with very different themes from that of “Squid Game” because, as anyone with half a brain should know, dark shows can be dark in different ways. In December, Netflix released yet another Korean drama, this one called “The Silent Sea”—a sci-fi drama about astronauts on the moon. And yet, with both “Hellbound” and “The Silent Sea,” you’ll find articles from CNN to The Blast attempting to pitch both shows as “the next ‘Squid Game,’” as though that’s a comparison worth making for every dark Korean drama. 

Now, this isn’t necessarily a new kind of comparison. Think of all the YA dystopian novels that came out after “The Hunger Games”: everyone was blurbing books as “the next ‘Hunger Games.’” Similarly, every new middle-grade fantasy-esque series was being pitched as “the next ‘Harry Potter.’” However, if you’ve read anything that was compared to “The Hunger Games” or “Harry Potter,” you’ll remember that more often than not, those descriptions weren’t on the mark. Not only that, but those descriptions completely invalidated the authors’ originality. 

That’s exactly the case with everything being compared to “Squid Game,” except because Korean dramas are such a new medium for non-Korean audiences, this comparison feels even flatter. What non-Korean audiences need to recognize is that, like books, the Korean drama as a medium is incredibly versatile and, frankly, not every Korean drama is “Squid Game” nor does it really want to be “Squid Game.” Simply put, not every Korean drama needs the weight of being compared to “Squid Game” in order to be seen as a watch-worthy hit. Not only that, but “Squid Game” is a fantastic show in its own right, and it deserves to have a spotlight without being used as some catch-all for a medium that’s always been trying out different hats. 

So, that said, if you’re interested in exploring the world of Korean dramas, definitely do—but just don’t take the comparison to “Squid Game” to heart. Check out any of the available titles on Netflix: whether you’re craving something dark and mysterious like the thriller murder mystery “Beyond Evil,” something light and touching like the coming-of-age slice-of-life “Hello, My Twenties!” or something magical and supernatural like “Hotel del Luna,” I guarantee that you can find a Korean drama perfect for you. Believe me, there is so much more to the world of Korean dramas, no comparison to “Squid Game” needed.

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