Why Pyramid Game is the new Squid Game

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By Stephanie KaloiFeatures correspondent

Alamy Cast of Pyramid game (Credit: Alamy)Alamy

(Credit: Alamy)

Why Pyramid Game, the new South Korean series on TVING and Paramount+, is sparking global intrigue.

After it debuted in September 2021, the South Korean series Squid Game rapidly became the most-watched show on Netflix by the end of the month. Despite the series’ intense themes, a 140-million strong audience couldn’t get enough of the show’s psychological and literal playground warfare.

Nearly three years later, the new South Korean show Pyramid Game will be the country’s only offering at next month’s Series Mania festival. Based on the Naver webtoon by the same name, Pyramid Game is about a violent survival pursuit set at the prestigious Baekyeon Girls High School, where a popularity contest determines how students are divided up into three groups: attackers, victims and bystanders.

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The system of popularity polls has dire consequences for the girls who attend the school. These include transfer student Seong Su-ji (played by Kim Je-yeon, who is also known by the name Bona), the popular Baek Ha-rin (Jang Da-ah), the shy Myeong Ja-eun (Ryu Da-in), class president Seo Do-ah (Shin Seul-ki) and Im Ye-rim (Kang Na-eon), who is known for being more relaxed than her glamorous family.

Series Mania describes the show as “somewhere between Squid Game and Mean Girls,” but it might be even darker than that – not that audiences are likely to mind. Interest in dystopia is nothing new for filmgoers and television audiences, what with the popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale, Black Mirror and even The Matrix series over the years. The Elisabeth Moss-driven Handmaid’s Tale has consistently delivered top-10 Nielsen ratings for Hulu throughout its first five seasons, and Black Mirror did the same for Netflix its first six seasons. But Squid Game and Pyramid Game are unique in giving audiences around the world a glimpse into some of the real-life circumstances many in South Korea live in.

Netflix (Credit: Netflix)Netflix

(Credit: Netflix)

Film critic Nemo Kim, the editor-in-chief of Kritique, explained that for audiences in South Korea, the themes of both Squid Game and Pyramid Game are all too familiar. He told BBC Culture of Squid Game, “It’s important to note that for South Koreans, the debt-ridden circumstances of the contestants are not something that only exist in a fictional dystopian world. We could argue that many people around the world suffer from similar situations, but South Korea is notorious for its lack of job security.”

“The school setting of Pyramid Game is the same,” Kim continued. “South Korean schools are notorious for bullying between students, and we’ve also had several teachers committing suicide at school due to harassment from parents and students.” Unfortunately, he said, “those series all drew a lot of inspiration from the reality that South Koreans see around them.”

Sociologist and author Nancy Yuen, who specialises in Asian American representation and bias in Hollywood, told BBC Culture that audiences like shows such as Squid Game and Pyramid Game because the violence is part of a game – and that makes it easier to watch. “The fact that these are predicated on games rather than pure evil or unknown factors makes them more digestible. The storytelling in Squid Game was also extremely compelling in how it deals with class exploitation – something that transcends culture.”

“The characters were also so well-developed, it didn’t matter that non-Korean audiences have likely never heard of Squid Game as a childhood game; we were already rooting for our favorite players to succeed,” she added.

The narrow ways that Hollywood has portrayed Asians will be replaced by a greater depth and breadth of content that will stretch how global audiences see Asians and Asian Americans – Nancy Yuen

Kim also said that Netflix was the only company that responded positively to Squid Game when the show’s director Hwang Dong-hyuk was shopping the series around, and its Netflix home has resulted in both positives and negatives for the South Korean film and television industry. On one hand, Kim said, creatives – including those working in non-English-language film and TV – now know they have the opportunity for their work to be seen by international audiences on one the largest streaming platforms in the world. On the other hand, there might be a temptation for some in the industry to simply replicate shows that have proven to be successful. As Kim put it, “If something has done well internationally, other people are more or less taking too much from that original series, copying and pasting into their new series”.

In April 2023, Netflix announced plans to invest $2.5bn over the next four years into South Korean TV shows, movies and unscripted series, something that Kim said will hopefully benefit the country and audiences interested in its productions. “I think the next five years will be a crucial time for the Korean drama/film industry,” Kim said. “South Korea is doing well right now, but the domestic box office records are dismal.”

Box office numbers in South Korea in 2023 came in at $598.4bn (£472.3bn) – a number that marks a drop from 2022, but which is still far above box office returns during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

For Yuen, a more global interest in South Korean shows such as Pyramid Game could also provide opportunities for Asian Americans in Hollywood. She explained that an increasing interest in South Korean productions could create more roles for Asian American actors in general, and that “the narrow ways that Hollywood has portrayed Asians will be replaced by a greater depth and breadth of content that will stretch how global audiences see Asians and Asian Americans”.

Pyramid Game premiered on TVING in South Korea on 29 February 2024, and new episodes will be available weekly until 21 March 2024. It will be available globally on Paramount+ later this year.

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