Because there isn't enough deadly grim awfulness in the world right now I decided to start watching the new Netflix series Squid Game.
For me, this was an unusual move. A few years back I made the personal decision to stop watching violently tense, anxiety-inducing shows like this precisely because the real world was giving me enough to stress over. I really didn't have any desire to fuel those stomach-churning feelings in my downtime.
Because of this policy, I've missed a lot of quality series that people have raved about - I've never seen an episode of The Handmaid's Tale for instance. But on the flip side, I've felt a lot better in myself only having to worry about actual real-life problems - like the rushing climate apocalypse and the seemingly unbridgeable social, financial and political divide tearing at the seams of our country and indeed a lot of the world - instead of made-up ones.
Of course, since adopting the policy the world has only managed to get worse. I was locked in my house for weeks because of a highly transmissible fatal pandemic swirling around in the air, there's been once-in-100-years climate-change disasters happening with great frequency around the globe recently, and earlier there seems to be more chest-thumping between the United States and China in recent times.
If you pay too much attention it's enough to drive you to despair. Against this backdrop, I needed some light entertainment. And that's why I clicked on Squid Game when it's the exact sort of thing I normally wouldn't.
I'd say it was about halfway through the first episode when I was brutally reminded why I'd stopped watching shows like this. But by then it was too late for both me and the hundreds of people I was watching get ruthlessly and graphically slaughtered in cold blood. Just like the onscreen survivors, I was now seriously invested and in too deep. There was no backing out.
This South Korean survival-horror series riffs on the premises depicted in movies and books like The Hunger Games, Battle Royale and the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger classic The Running Man. You have a bunch of people competing in "games" where the losers aren't voted out, or sent home, but are instead murdered.
But unlike those aforementioned properties which are set far off in the future, Squid Game is set in the here and now. What's most shocking about it isn't all the incredibly bloody death but rather how depressingly believable it feels.
The series follows a down-and-out gambler named Seong Gi-hun. He owes a lot of money to a violent bookie, his ex-wife is threatening to move overseas with his daughter, and his mother is facing an amputation because she can't afford the hospital care that would help her.
Desperate for cash, he accepts an offer to compete in a series of games for prize money by a mysterious, yet affable, stranger who neglects to mention the whole, lose-and-you-die thing.
A minivan picks him up the next night, he's instantly drugged and when he awakes he's in a crowded hall wearing a blue jumpsuit. Soon enough his captors appear, wearing bright pink hazmat suits and black masks, to explain what's going on.
Like Seong, the other 455 contestants are all heavily in debt and have jumped at the chance to compete in children's games, like Red Light, Green Light, for tens of millions of dollars.
But again, the whole death part is left out. Although, it doesn't take the players long to work this part out when those that are a bit wobbly on their feet start getting fatally shot after the game begins.
From here the stakes, body count and spilled blood only increases as the series introduces you to the lives and problems of its characters before throwing them back into a murderous game. These humanising backstories give vital motivation as to why these people would all choose to put their lives on the line - even when given the option of safely leaving the deadly games. Even if that motivation does consistently boil down to cold hard cash.
Squid Game's concepts and societal commentary may be familiar but, nevertheless, the show is still brutally entertaining. There's character betrayals, unlikely alliances, the constant high stakes of life and death and the compelling mystery at the heart of the show - who are the people behind the masks and why are they doing this?
It's incredibly tense and deadly awful viewing and its blood-soaked violence has left me feeling squeamish on more than one occasion.
That said, its disturbing horror has been a welcomed distraction from the real world. Squid Game's premise may not be new but its execution - and its many bloody executions - is simply killer.