Your questions about Netflix’s global sensation ‘Squid Game,’ answered
Welcome to Screen Gab, the newsletter for everyone with a Venn diagram of Britney Spears documentaries pinned to their wall.
While the grassroots of the #FreeBritney movement deserves credit for bringing the pop star to this point in the fight to end her conservatorship — with her father, Jamie Spears, suspended as conservator on Wednesday by a Los Angeles judge — there’s no denying the role of the media in popularizing the cause. And a clear winner has emerged in the battle of the Britney docs: FX Networks’ “The New York Times Presents.”
With February’s “Framing Britney Spears,” which ignited the broader public’s interest in the case, and last week’s “Controlling Britney Spears,” which scooped Netflix’s top-secret “Britney vs Spears” by five days and a number of eye-popping details, the FX on Hulu docuseries has owned the story thus far, helping casual observers stay abreast of the stakes without reading up on every legal twist and turn.
But the proliferation of Britney docs, including CNN’s “Toxic: Britney Spears‘ Battle for Freedom” and the BBC’s “The Battle for Britney: Fans, Cash and a Conservatorship,” has also raised eyebrows — not least Spears’ own. The singer posted on Instagram in May that “these documentaries are so hypocritical … they criticize the media and then do the same thing.” In other words, they shine a light on the paparazzi who hounded Spears even at her lowest moments ... in order to put her life back under the microscope.
It’s an open question whether these documentaries, individually and in the aggregate, are dogged journalism or just another form of exploitation. But more than two decades after “... Baby One More Time,” our fascination with Spears’ life and career shows no signs of waning: Though the conservatorship saga has reached a turning point, when it comes to the attention economy, it remains unclear when Britney might finally be free.
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Streaming recommendations from the film and TV experts at The Times
“On Cinema at the Cinema” (HEI Network). This ongoing life project from Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington — a riff on Siskel and Ebert that turned into an exercise in deep world-building — has lived on various platforms across its many seasons, the 12th of which debuts Wednesday on the HEI (as in Heidecker) Network, a real web-based subscription service that is itself part of the maxi-multi-mega-metafiction. (I once moderated a panel with Heidecker and Turkington on the “On Cinema” spinoff “Decker” — a MAGA-before-MAGA bargain-basement home-brew spy series — and it became clear as the night wore on that I was also an actor in this game, helping to write its history.) As versions of themselves, which is to say, characters who bear their names, the two are caught in a relationship based on jealousy and resentment, fated to torture one another into eternity — people who, however free they imagine themselves to be, have nowhere else to go. (And never manage to review a film.) —Robert Lloyd
Whether you’ve already devoured Sally Rooney’s latest novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” as I have, or simply require a jolt of cuffing-season inspiration, Hulu’s intimate, impossibly delicate adaptation of her second book, “Normal People,” is the perfect miniseries to spend an autumn weekend with. Co-written by Rooney, Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe, and directed by Lenny Abrahamson (“Room”) and Hettie Macdonald (“Howards End”), its tale of childhood friends-turned-classmates-turned-lovers Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) is crisp, almost pure, in its simplicity: Over 12 breathtakingly sexy half-hour installments, the pair hew together and drift apart, buffeted by class differences, family strife, career developments, even depression, which Mescal actualizes with empathy and precision in the stricken revelation that is Episode 10. By the time you reach the end you’ll be impatient for more, but take heart: The streamer’s adaptation of Rooney’s debut, “Conversations with Friends,” began filming in April. —Matt Brennan
Everything you need to know about the film or TV series everyone’s talking about
Anybody who’s spent time on Netflix or scrolled their social media feed in the last couple of weeks has likely wondered at one point, “What is ‘Squid Game’?” Here’s a quick primer about that curious presence on your Netflix screen that has already inspired plenty of TikToks.
What is ‘Squid Game’?
Written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, “Squid Game” is the buzzy Korean drama series that is on track to top “Bridgerton” and become Netflix’s most successful show ever (according to the streamer’s self-reported metrics). The show follows Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) and 455 other debt-ridden contestants who have been taken to a hidden compound on an island to play a series of children’s games with a deadly twist and a cash prize.
Why is it called ‘Squid Game’? Are there squid in it?
As TV critic Robert Lloyd notes in his review, squid are not harmed — or even present — in the nine-episode series. As mentioned in the first episode, “Squid Game” is named after a children’s game played on a court that is shaped like a squid. It’s among the six games that the contestants have to play on their quest to leave the island alive. Other games they must play include a Korean version of red light, green light and tug o’ war. Those who lose or break the rules are killed, while the winner will walk away with millions.
Would I like it?
“Squid Game’s” premise has drawn comparisons to films such as “The Hunger Games” and its bloodier Japanese predecessor “Battle Royale,” as well as the more recent “As the Gods Will.” An unsettling survivor series, “Squid Game’s” violence and gore come with a clear critique of capitalism — the show explicitly mentions how the real world prospects are just as brutal for these contestants as taking their chances on lethal children’s games. The show will likely appeal to those drawn to genre titles with social commentary such as “Train to Busan” or “Get Out” as well as those who are drawn to violent, escapist fare.
But how scary is it?
The monsters in “Squid Game” are economic exploitation and capitalist society, so the series doesn’t rely on things like jump scares. Some may find the bloody violence upsetting, but the show is not always grim.
What about that ‘Squid Game’ TikTok challenge?
One of the viral TikTok trends that has followed “Squid Game” is a challenge inspired by one of the deadly children’s games the contestants play on the show. In the show, the contestants must punch out certain shapes from a dalgona cookie — a honeycomb toffee-like sweet made from caramelized sugar and baking soda. The participants are given a needle to try to carve out their assigned shape without breaking the thin cookie in a limited time. Fans on TikTok have shared videos of themselves making dalgona cookies and attempting the same challenge to see how they might have fared if they were in that same life-or-death situation. —Tracy Brown
A weekly chat with actors, writers, directors and more about what they’re working on — and what they’re watching
Jennifer Lee Pryor is not at a loss for words, about anything really, but especially about her twice-husband, the legendary comedian Richard Pryor.
Pryor, who quite literally changed comedy, died in 2005 after battling multiple sclerosis. Lee Pryor returned to him in 1994 “when he was failing with MS.” (They were married previously for a short time in the early ‘80s.) Then, and now, she has made it a priority to care for Pryor’s legacy.
Thus her participation in pulling together a newly released Time Life box set, “The Ultimate Richard Pryor Collection: Uncensored.” The 13-disc set includes his standup and TV appearances, including the four episodes of not-safe-for-TV “The Richard Pryor Show,” and new features that Lee Pryor created such as “Last Standup Sitting Down,” about Pryor performing from his wheelchair.
It also includes a “no-holds-barred” interview with Lee Pryor, whose favorite routine of Pryor’s is also NSFTV. But she still has some things to set straight, her protective instincts taking over when he can’t speak for himself.
“Nobody does drugs 24/7. Richard was one of the most prolific people. If you look at the body of work ... he would be very disciplined when he had a project to do.
“He was high all the time on ‘Stir Crazy.’ And do you know that he still would get up and go to work? … It was scary just watching him do it, but you know, he had a discipline about him. So that’s the other thing that kind of drives me crazy: ‘Oh, Richard did cocaine all the time.’ [N]o, no, no.”
She’s far from done being “the Centurion at the gate, if you will,” and gives a glimpse into a fan’s future.
“You know, we’ve got other projects on the slate. As you know, there’s a biopic that’s being written now. … Our deal is at MGM and, Kenya [Barris] is writing the script and he will also produce with me.”
As for this project, she wants viewers to be entertained but also to be inspired.
“Richard always told the truth. He sometimes lost his way with that right after the fire,” she says of the widely publicized incident in June 1980 when Pryor was burned. “He wasn’t immediately forthcoming that it was a suicide attempt, and then he tried to correct it in ‘Jo Jo Dancer.’”
But on the whole, she says of the boxed set, “you’ll see how honest he was and how original ... . [T]his guy just had courage straight through. Never gave up. Never, never let go. Never surrendered. Always told the truth.” —Dawn Burkes
Times staffers chew on the pop culture of the moment — love it, hate it or somewhere in between
Ashley Lee: Hot off the success Disney+ found with “Hamilton,” streaming services have been snatching up live-captured performances of Broadway musicals. Apple TV+ released “Come From Away” last month, and now Netflix is debuting “Diana: The Musical” — which seems like a natural fit, given its Emmy sweep with “The Crown.” Meredith, as The Times’ resident royals expert, I’m curious what you thought.
Meredith Blake: Ha, I think some people might dispute that characterization but I will admit to consuming lots of royal content — especially all things Diana — in my time. I read the Andrew Morton biography when I was a tween and, a few years later, got up early to watch her funeral live on TV. I’ve eagerly gobbled up each new season of “The Crown,” then fallen deep down the Google rabbit hole; I read Tina Brown’s illuminating book “The Diana Chronicles” last year, and I can’t wait to see “Spencer.”
So in theory I’d be the ideal customer for a Diana musical, but as I watched the Netflix version, I couldn’t help but wonder who the audience for this would be. The show plays like a flattened medley of all of Diana’s greatest hits — the “fairytale” wedding, the Camilla love triangle, the charity work — without much insight into what made her such a flawed but fascinating bundle of contradictions. .
Curiously, the show treads lightly on Diana’s eating disorder, and I think that’s a mistake: her vulnerability and openness is part of why so many people felt deeply connected to Diana despite her immense privilege.
Lee: Sounds like you agree with Times’ theater critic Charles McNulty, who really wasn’t a fan when the show made its world premiere in La Jolla in 2019. It’s not quite self-aware or campy enough, and so many real-life plot points — like Diana’s “revenge dress” — were presented as punchlines that just didn’t land for me.
I’m also unsure about the score, which McNulty called “dated” and “as American as Applebee’s.” Given all the compositional variety made in musical theater over the past decade, this one sounds tonally misguided and jarringly obsolete. And to be honest, the fact that this musical about a British woman was written and directed by American men is glaringly obvious.
Blake: There’s a blunt American quality to a story that’s largely about British reserve, and about how much Diana communicated without having to speak — much less sing — out loud, which is why part of me wonders if any musical about her life could really work.
I’m no musical theater expert, but the simplistic lyrics made me cringe more than once. I don’t think I’ll ever get over, “Harry, my ginger-haired son / you’ll always be second to none.” Or “better than a Guinness / better than a wank / Snatch a few pics and it’s money in the bank,” sung by paparazzi with Cockney accents that would make Dick Van Dyke blush.
Ashley, as a newbie to the Windsor drama, did you care about Diana as she was portrayed here?
Lee: I doubt this was the intended effect, but I’ve never before been so compelled to consume “The Crown” or any other Diana-centric content, as I’m now desperate for any kind of nuance about her story. I do wonder if it’s a strong contender to be this year’s “Cats,” a catchy, colorful and chaotic musical experience that lends itself to recreational drugs. (Though confirming this would require watching it again, and I simply cannot.)
“Diana” is unique in that the Broadway production was scheduled to open in spring 2020; this live-capture was filmed during the industry’s COVID-19 shutdown and is debuting on Netflix before its onstage opening in November. While widening accessibility to Broadway shows is sorely needed, I’m not sure if this release strategy entices potential ticket holders ... or spares them.
Blake: It does seem like an odd and potentially self-defeating strategy for selling tickets. I’m all for bringing theater to the masses. Just maybe not this theater.
The TV shows and streaming movies to keep an eye on in the coming week
Fri., Oct. 1
“The Guilty” (Netflix). Jake Gyllenhaal as an angry cop bumped to call center duty dominates the screen to the exclusion of any other human — so your dream flick, possibly — in this telephone-based thriller from director Antoine Fuqua.
“Maid” (Netflix). Single mom Margaret Qualley cleans fancy houses to keep from homelessness. From Stephanie Land’s memoir, with Qualley’s mother Andie MacDowell as her mother.
“The Many Saints of Newark” (HBO Max). David Chase’s prequel feature to “The Sopranos” features the late James Gandolfini’s son Michael as a teenage Tony.
Sat., Oct. 2
“Saturday Night Live” (NBC). The sketch show that is older than its cast rumbles into 30 Rock for its 47th season with a few new faces, Owen Wilson as first-time host and Kacey Musgraves as the musical guest.
Sun., Oct. 3
“Grantchester” (PBS). Vicar-and-cop period crime show makes it into 1958. Ecclesiastical intrigue, emotional drama, cool vintage geegaws and plain old murder.
Mon., Oct. 4
“On My Block” (Netflix). Fourth and final season for the L.A.-set inner city teen dramedy.
Tues., Oct. 5
“American Masters — Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” (PBS). The Puerto Rican EGOT goddess looks back over her life and sometimes troubled, lately thriving career.
Wed., Oct. 6
“Among the Stars” (Disney+). Space station docuseries with international flavor tracks mission to repair the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer — cheaper than buying a new one — while waving adieu to the Age of the Shuttles.
“CSI: Vegas” (CBS). Return with us now to those thrilling days of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” revived under a new name. Is that William Petersen I see? It is.
Thurs., Oct. 7
“Ghosts” (CBS). Rose McIver in a haunted-house sitcom remade from a British series.
“One of Us Is Lying” (Peacock). Dark “Breakfast Club.” —Robert Lloyd
Want to know more about one of the filmmakers we’ve interviewed? Need a new show to binge now that your fave is done for the season? If you have a question about TV or streaming movies for the pop culture obsessives at The Times, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and you may find the answer in next week’s edition.
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