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Squid Game, Money Heist and how Netflix discovered the secret formula for an international blockbuster

Netflix’s smash hit foreign-language series have audiences ensnared like a laboratory-developed pheromone. Ed Cumming gets to the bottom of the streaming service’s winning recipe – and asks whether others can replicate it...

Monday 08 November 2021 14:04
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<p>‘Squid Game’ has become Netflix’s most watched original series of all time since its debut in September</p>

‘Squid Game’ has become Netflix’s most watched original series of all time since its debut in September

It was bound to happen eventually. After billions of hours of television, millions of concepts, thousands of channels, someone was going to work out the formula for the ideal show, the Neo of programming, a chosen one that would pull the sword out of the lake and make all others bend the knee. Friends and Seinfeld gave it a crack, proving the universality of having mates and jokes. The Simpsons and Family Guy achieved widespread popularity with inventive, socially conservative cartoons. Game of Thrones showed that tits, dragons and sarcastic dwarves translate into many languages. Bridgerton showed the enduring allure of Regency Britain.

In the end, these were all mere warm-up acts for the one true format, which Netflix was brewing in a lab somewhere in the bowels of California. After the triumph of Money Heist and Squid Game, we know that great television comprises four main elements: red boiler suits, machine guns, desperate poor people and large cash rewards. After all that searching and experimenting, the answer turned out to be simple.

In Money Heist, the Spanish-language series that was the streamer’s biggest non-English hit until this year, a mysterious figure calling himself “El Professor” gathers a bunch of criminals together to rob the Spanish mint in Madrid. Dressed in bright red jump suits and brandishing machine guns. Soon they run into difficulties and become embroiled in complicated personal relationships. If they can make it out alive, the rewards will be huge. Money Heist has now been supplanted by Squid Game, in which indebted Koreans are pooled together and imprisoned by guards dressed in bright red jump suits and brandishing machine guns, who challenge them to play a series of deadly games for the chance to win billions of won. Soon they run into difficulties and become embroiled in complicated personal relationships. If they can make it out alive, the rewards will be huge.

When you break it down, it’s obvious that these parts are all vital to a successful television programme. Red boiler suits are visually arresting. Netflix knows that the thumbnail image you see when you are deciding what to watch is crucial to keeping your engagement. They only have a couple of seconds to draw you in. Red is dangerous. When you see a red boiler suit, you know you will not be watching a period drama or a romcom. Red boiler suits on their own could mean a bunch of plumbers or firemen, but red boiler suits plus machine guns implies a uniform beyond the reach of the traditional authorities, which is to say a criminal gang. From The Sopranos to The Wire to Breaking Bad, criminal gangs have always made for gripping TV. Machine guns are exciting because they imply sudden violent death. If there is a machine gun in the thumbnail image, you can guarantee someone will be shooting a machine gun soon. A machine gun and a boiler suit are international symbols to let you know that this programme will be mysterious and exciting, and will be taking place in a version of the world that is at best heavily stylised.

Sadly, however, machine guns and red boiler suits alone are not enough to sustain a viewing experience through multiple episodes and series. We’ll lose interest pretty quickly if the characters aren’t sympathetic. That’s where the desperate poor people and large cash rewards come in. Poverty is a relatable motivator in every territory, and a large cash reward is a universal goal. Viewers who might not be able to relate to the struggles of, say, Lord Downton, can appreciate why broke Koreans with sick family members might be tempted into a vicious battle royale. In both series, the ostensible goodies and baddies are all shown to be victims of the global financial system. Although they are holding the machine guns, the guards in Squid Game are as downtrodden as the victims, without the possibility of large cash rewards. The Money Heist lot might be robbers, but they are noble robbers, who resort to violence only when necessary and try not to harm the bystanders. The real villains are politicians.

Once you have identified the four elements of blockbuster television, it is hard not to think of how other programmes might have been improved by them. Plenty of game shows have desperate poor people and large cash prizes – The Crystal Maze even has boiler suits, although they aren’t red – but none have machine guns. Misfits set the tone for boiler suits, although they were really prison garb, which is a slightly different aesthetic.  Line of Duty has machine guns, poor people and cash incentives, but there isn’t a red boiler suit to be seen. It’s an oversight. When series stray from this formula, they are on thin ice. Emily in Paris had no red boiler suits, no machine guns and focused on a non-poor character, Emily, who was mildly interested in love and experience rather than desperate for a large cash incentive. It was slammed by the critics. Soaps have often revolved around desperate poor people, but they have rarely experimented with machine guns or red boiler suits.

Red jumpsuits plus machine guns equals TV gold: Rodrigo de la Serna, Jaime Lorente and Miguel Herran in ‘Money Heist'

I know what you’re going to say. “These are just two popular series out of many hundreds that do not adhere to this rule. It could be a coincidence. Look at Succession.” It’s true that critics rave about this series, and it has won many prizes, but it remains severely underwatched, especially in international territories. We must conclude this is partly because, while its cash prizes are exceptionally large, it has no machine guns, no red boiler suits and certainly no desperate poor people. Or at least, not in the current run. There is still time. Brian Cox would look rather fetching.

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