IF you’re looking for rage and rebellion, skip past music and head straight to TV. It’s a weird thing to say for someone who grew up in the era of punk and ska and came of age amid grunge and hip-hop but music seems a busted flush when it comes to expressing the howling anger of ordinary people these days. Music has become an endless download of feelgood, self-affirmation – a faux form of corporate mindfulness, telling us all: you can do it, kid, the world’s your oyster, just dream and the dream will come true.
Bull, says TV, the world’s a sick game. Open your eyes, schmuck, you’re born poor, you’ll die poor and the rich are laughing at you over their champagne flutes.
Now clearly, there’s plenty of exceptions to that thesis – music, particularly British urban music and some great female artists, have rage aplenty, and there’s a swathe of TV that’s just mindless pap. But in broad terms – at least in the mainstream – it’s the boob-tube that now packs a political punch, not the airwaves. The bottom line is: most music is Mogadon, there to keep you drugged; the best of TV, though, is an enraged adrenaline jolt.
If you doubt my case, then I’ll ask two witnesses to step forward: the Korean psychodrama Squid Game, and the British-American satire Succession. Squid Game arrived a few weeks ago and just about saved Netflix. The streaming channel seemed in terminal decline, producing some of the worst garbage known to television of late. Squid Game, together with a few other Netflix shows, turned that around.
If Harold Pinter were alive, he’d probably turn his pen to Squid Game. It’s a scream of cold fury against global capitalism. Brutal, harrowing, pitiless, surreal. It’s also an unstoppable, heart-in-your-mouth rollercoaster – without question a work of wrathful genius. Written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, it tells the story of a bunch of poverty-stricken, debt-laden ordinary Joes and Josephines lured into a ‘last man standing’ series of games. The winner becomes a multi-millionaire. The problem is, contestants don’t know until it’s too late that if you lose a game, you die. Horribly.
The characters are us: ordinary folk broken by bad luck or stupid mistakes; each of them smashed by the system, which explains why Squid Game wants to smash the system in return.
This show is smart. It has deep cultural roots. If you’re looking for its intellectual side, then burrow through The Golden Bough, the famed study of religion and mythology by Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer. There’s horrible echoes of Frazer’s work on the myth of the ‘Rex Nemorensis’ – the King of Nemi, a woodland priest in ancient Rome subjected to ritual murder. Artistically, Squid Game is pulling on a heritage that owes much to The Most Dangerous Game – a 1924 short story which became a 1932 movie – about a rich man who hunts humans. There’s a theory The Most Dangerous Game became so popular in the 20s and 30s because it tapped into the sense among ordinary people of the rich as predators. The movie The Hunt last year played on similar themes.
Unsurprisingly, the term hallyu – the Korean wave – has now entered the Oxford English Dictionary. In the west, we currently seem to obsess on “identity” in our art; in the east, auteurs are firmly focused on class. Squid Game treads similar territory to the 2019 Oscar winner Parasite by Korea’s Bong Joon-ho, who also dissected the evils of class and wealth in his film Snowpiercer.
Now, with Succession – which has just returned for its third series we see life from the other side. Here we’re with a family so wealthy they make ancient Babylon look cheap. Brian Cox plays the patriarch, a sort of Scottish Rupert Murdoch, mulling over King Lear-style which of his vile children will inherit his evil media empire. There’s not one character in Succession with a moral compass. They’re all black-eyed devils, like creatures from Jacobean revenge plays.
If that sounds awful, well it is, but Succession is also probably the funniest drama that’s been on TV in generations. By Jesse Armstrong – the writer behind Peep Show – it makes the scatology of Malcolm Tucker from the political satire The Thick of It seem like a psalm sung by Mother Theresa. Just check the title of Season 1, Episode 2: S**t show at the F**k factory.
What’s not to like?
Look, Succession says: you’re being controlled by monsters, by the most wicked creatures on two legs. Like Squid Game, Succession shares that sense of the Theatre of the Absurd and the Theatre of Cruelty. The writing is among the best to ever grace the pages of drama.
Both these shows have one clear message – the system is rotten and if we had the wit we were born with, we’d tear it to pieces.
Great political TV isn’t all dark, though. Among the rage and pain, there’s little glimpses of light. Another show which saved Netflix from certain death was Sex Education, which has just aired its third series. It’s a story about a bunch of sixth formers and their parents and teachers coming to terms with the confusion of sex and relationships. Initially, it’s a jarring mix of both British and American culture until you work out that the makers wanted this show to reach as many viewers in the west as possible.
It’s wonderfully dirty and silly, but also beautifully observed in its humanity. Sex can be messy and complicated, it says – don’t feel bad about whatever floats your boat. None of us are perfect, live and let live. It’s kind, loving – nobody is judged except those who judge others. As long as adults are happy and consenting then get on with it – enjoy yourself.
Beneath the surface, though, Sex Education fights the same battles as Squid Game and Succession – it says the status quo (whether that’s about sex and morality, or money and power) is a lie, and lies should be confronted and destroyed.
TV isn’t just a class act today, it’s an act of class war.
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