tv review

Siren Goes Off

Team Guard carries their team flag across a mud flat in the series’ opening challenge. Photo: Netflix

Six teams of four, all women, are dropped on a forest island where they face off in an elaborate contest of physicality, strategy, and guile. Last standing team wins, but there is no prize, only the sweet taste of victory. Yes, schemes are hatched, alliances are formed, and blood feuds are forged. But Siren: Surviving the Island, Netflix’s new South Korean reality- competition show, explodes the conventions of strategic gameplay into a tactical art form, even if the challenge is ultimately a wicked bout of Capture the Flag. Abundant with property damage, thrown hands, and bodies slammed hard into dirt, Siren is metal as hell, and it absolutely rules.

Each of the six competing teams arrives professionally equipped to rumble. Four are designed around various state apparatus: police, military, firefighters, bodyguards; another is composed of elite athletes, including an Olympian judo artist; and the remaining crew is made up of professional stuntwomen, which makes sense once you watch them barrel through a window. On some level, you could interpret the show as state propaganda given how much of the confessionals are dedicated to competitors talking up their respective service branches. But it’s not necessarily effective, since some teams don’t acquit themselves very well, and even when they do, as in the case of Team Soldier’s penchant for chicanery and motivational asides like “We’ll kill them all,” they get the pure villain edit.

Siren’s competition is structured around two main components. Most important are Base Battles, which can break out at any moment when the titular islandwide siren goes off. After a brutal opening challenge involving a race to haul a heavy flagpole across mudflats, the teams are distributed across a variety of shelters — some actual houses, others in mere tents — around the island. During a Base Battle, the goal is to eliminate opposing teams by seizing the team flag hidden inside their base; each competitor has their own individual flag in addition to a team one, and they’re knocked out of the round when someone nabs it, while the captured team flag warrants expulsion from the island. Arena Battles, in which teams are tasked to compete in elaborate physical challenges in order to win better equipment and advantages during the Base Battles, feel like Top Chef’s Quickfire Challenges, except there’s no immunity and the rewards include a handsome little portable stove. There’s also a good amount of downtime in between these set pieces, which teams spend scheming, scouting, making alliances, setting up defensive measures around their camps, and buying supplies from the commissary. (Participants can only purchase food and equipment using currency based on calories burned during the previous day, which is also why the island features a gym — luxury!)

Siren’s high-concept ideas can feel unwieldy, producing a competition that suggests a rough first draft: Rules are both excessively elaborate and inadequately explained to the viewer, and some of the game’s many overlapping systems are underbaked to the point of irrelevance. But when the siren goes off and a Base Battle erupts, few things feel more stressful on reality television. Teams hustle to overwhelm an opponent’s base before a rival group claims theirs; as the contestants hoof through dense foliage, a drone shot soars over to capture the frenetic scramble. When teams clash, the battle plays out as a game of positioning and grappling; one misstep usually results in a body brutally yanked to the ground, dragged off, and swarmed. In one particularly memorable sequence, two allied teams descend on the boathouse, a moderately defensible base. Under the cover of morning fog, they surround the structure, guarded by a lone defender whose teammates have bet the farm on an all-out attack elsewhere. Isolated, the defender commits to her only move, propping a bed against the door using her entire body. It’s not a viable plan, as the invaders use a hammer to break through the window and overwhelm her. The sequence is comprised of a blend of body cam, surveillance, and on-site camera-crew footage, and as competitors struggle on top of broken glass, the editing recalls some of pop culture’s most brutal action sequences: Battle Royale, that one scene with Adam Goldberg in Saving Private Ryan, endless zombie movies, and of course Squid Game. Obviously, this is a reality-television show with safety guardrails, but Siren evokes the heightened mortal flavor of seminal fiction.

Siren is the latest product from Netflix’s ballooning investment in South Korean programming, which followed naturally from Squid Game’s phenomenal breakout success in 2021. That content expansion has mostly been focused on scripted programming, but as Don Kang, the executive in charge of the streamer’s K-content strategy, told my colleague Joe Adalian, Korean nonfiction programming is now a “big bet” for Netflix. That effort has produced several global reality hits so far, in particular the excellent Singles Inferno and Physical: 100. Siren serves as a kind of spiritual follow-up to the latter, sharing an emphasis on gritty physicality and a competitor who appears on both shows. The two series ultimately offer intriguing provocations to the way television tends to foreground smaller and more limber Asian bodies; Physical: 100 featured a galaxy of different ways Korean men and women can be gloriously ripped, with the show’s many tests of strength drawing attention to the nuances of various muscular forms. The all-women Siren centers on a broad spectrum of athletic body types — and to some extent, gender expression — whose diversity and complementary natures highlight the body as a functional tool.

But Siren’s convention twisting extends well beyond the body, as the show allows for the full personhood of its participants to emerge through the action. Its finest example is Team Firefighter’s Kim Hyeon-ah, whose boldness and quickness reveals a leader who is equal parts tempestuous, bullheaded, passionate, caring, careless, charismatic, and utterly brilliant. “With every Base Battle, my personality comes through a bit more,” she reflects during a confessional where she discusses her commitment to an all-or-nothing strategy. It’s an approach in want of more nuance, but one to which Hyeon-ah and her team have committed fully. So what if it doesn’t work out? Even if the plan goes south, there’s nothing but glory in going down on your own terms.

Siren Goes Off