In many ways, the absolute death grip Netflix’s Squid Game managed to get on worldwide streaming audiences in the last half of 2021 felt, at least to this critic, less like a surprise than an utter inevitability.
I don’t say this because BTS has been a dynamite global sensation for years (although they have), nor because Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite set the stage with its Best Picture win at the 2020 Oscars (although it did), nor even because the international obsession with K-dramas, as a whole, has been growing steadily for at least a decade (although that’s also true!). I mean, sure, these factors certainly contributed to it being a South Korean drama that ended up becoming the self-reported “most-watched series globally in Netflix history.” The fact of the matter is, though, a positive feedback loop has been running for years between the rising dominance of streaming video and the globalization of pop culture. That streaming projects originally developed in languages other than English (and produced in markets other than the US, Canada and the UK) would, sooner rather than later, break through into mainstream popularity—well, that was all but guaranteed
In fact, one might argue—as I did this past July —that the first real breakthrough came even earlier in 2021, when Netflix’s French heist series, Lupin, debuted to record-smashing global viewership all the way back in early January. After 2020 saw period piece darlings The Queen’s Gambit and Bridgerton net impressive enough viewership numbers that Netflix was willing to make (at least a sliver of) its internal data (kind of) public—i.e., by reporting that 62 million households binged the former in its first 28 days on the services, while 63 million binged the latter—Lupin topped both by netting a shocking (at the time) 70 million household binges before February was out.
This is the point at which I would typically say, “by comparison…,” but unfortunately, the number Netflix recently touted to Variety for Squid Game’s own first 28 day period—1.65 billion hours watched (as opposed to “households binged”)—effectively obfuscates any kind of useful analogy. That said, a more standardized data set put together by Statista, which ranks titles according to the number of accounts that streamed a given series for “at least 2 minutes in the first 28 days since release,” puts Squid Game far enough ahead in the No. 1 slot that it’s probably safe to assume it truly has outstripped every possible competitor in the ways that, at least so far as the global zeitgeist is concerned, really matter. Ultimately, between Lupin’s mega success* in the first half of the year, and Squid Game’s even wilder success in the second, it’s safe to say that 2021 really was the Year of the Foreign Language Blockbuster.
(*Interestingly, while Lupin still ranks high on the Statista list, it comes in at number 3, just behind Bridgerton and just ahead of The Witcher. The Queen’s Gambit, meanwhile, doesn’t appear in the top 10 at all. That said, the attached mini-analysis underscores the fact that a real discrepancy lies between “accounts streaming at least 2 minutes” and “total hours watched,” noting, for example, that while only 67 million accounts may have streamed the first 2 minutes of Stranger Things’s third season, that same season garnered a respectable 582 million total viewing hours. Which I guess is just a fancy math way of saying thanks for the confusion, Netflix!!)
Of course, longtime fans of Money Heist (Spain) and Dark (Germany) might take issue with this conclusion, arguing that the real breakthrough came all the way back in 2017, while the teens of Tumblr (and all its various international counterparts) are just as likely to laugh in every flavor of SKAM, which, all the way back in 2011, launched a global, multi-linguistic phenomenon that, even a decade later, is showing absolutely no sign of slowing down. (As Tumblr’s annual Year in Review shows, a full three SKAM adaptations—Druck, wtFOCK and SKAM France—ranked respectively at numbers 10th, 23rd and 54th, remain in 2021’s Top 100 TV Shows. Squid Game, for its part, ranked 22nd.) Meanwhile, fans of the 2007 ur-Scandi Noir thriller, Forbrydelsen, which was later adapted into English by AMC and then Netflix as The Killing might, for their part, make a pretty solid case for all of us being behind the times.
But therein—at least so far as I’m concerned—lies the proof that it really is *2021* that was the breakthrough year. Each of the above examples can be added up with various other small-h foreign language hits that have been an integral part of that positive international streaming feedback loop: Elite (Spain, 2018); Babylon Berlin (Germany, 2017); The Bureau (France, 2015); The Bridge (Norway, 2011); and every single K-, J-, C- and T-drama on Rakuten VIKI. Their small successes went in, and Squid Game’s 1.65 billion total hours watched across Netflix’s 213.56 global subscribers came out.
Don’t just take it from me! Per Netflix head of global TV Bela Bajaria, non-English language viewing on Netflix has seen an increase of 71% since 2018—a rate which, so long as Netflix’s global subscriber base grows, will only continue to rise. That said, don’t even just take it from Netflix: Per behemoth language learning app Duolingo’s own annual data report, global language learners continue to cite foreign language media among their reasons for wanting to pick up another language. And not just Korean—although Korean is up, across the globe (and, for whatever reason, No. 1 in Mongolia). Thanks in part to a YouTube-sourced surge in popularity of Turkish soap operas in Brazil, Turkish turned out to be that country’s fastest growing language in 2021. I mean!
And so I will say it again: As much as I loved Money Heist and will always cape for SKAM, between the back-to-back, blowout debuts of both Lupin and Squid Game, it seems safe to argue that, at least so far as the age of the foreign language blockbuster series goes, 2021 truly was a watershed year.
Now I just look forward to watching along with everyone else for the next international sensation to hit once 2022 rolls around—on Netflix or beyond.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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