A decade ago today, the South Korean channel tvN premiered a reality competition called The Genius.
Created by Jung Jong-yeon, its four seasons, which aired between 2013 and 2015, were beloved for their sharp and sly editing of strategic games. It earned English-speaking enthusiasts thanks to a fan-subtitled version that is, alas, no longer on YouTube.
Now, Jung has created a new series, The Devil’s Plan, 데블스 플랜, which is on Netflix and, at the very least, a spiritual successor to The Genius. Even though it’s not the same core game, it hits the same notes.
If you’ve never seen The Genius, though, and you like strategy and smart games without nonsense drama and overproducing, get ready to be won over by The Devil’s Plan.
Thirteen players spend a week in The Devil’s Plan’s well-appointed, two-story soundstage house, playing two games per day. Their objective is to gather tokens for themselves and earn money for the prize pot.
The players—a lawyer, a surgeon, boy band member, YouTubers, actors—are told by the masked host, “You will have to fully utilize your intelligence,” and “provided you don’t resort to violence or theft, you may pursue any course of action within the scope of the games’ rules.”
Imagine that: a reality TV show whose competitions prioritize intelligence!
Their best opportunity to earn the gold tokens, which are called pieces, is in the Main Match, a challenge in which they compete as individuals.
The two players with the fewest pieces after each Main Match are imprisoned in a small room in a faux cave, where they sit on cots and are fed bread and an orange while the others dine on, say, fresh lobster and soup.
Players can earn or lose pieces in games; spend them as currency; or outright give them to each other.
The two players with the most pieces at the end of the game compete for the prize, while any player who loses all of their pieces is out of the game. Some games have penalties, taking pieces away and effectively knocking players out, especially since pieces cannot be exchanged during the game.
The players collectively earn prize money—up to ₩500 million, or about US$370,000—in each day’s second game, the Prize Match. They work together in this challenge, though pieces may also be available as individual bonuses.
The genius of The Devil’s Plan is that its games are simple yet multilayered, offering opportunities for the players to prioritize self-interest over the group’s success.
Even better: The editing is particularly thoughtful, even devious, in that it does not immediately reveal everything to us, withholding information so that surprises to some players are also a surprise to us.
The very first game, a more layered version of Mafia, is structured to give everyone individual incentives to earn pieces, and to deceive each other about their roles. We’re only privy to what players are saying about their roles or deducing about each other.
The additional layers to the game are so much more complicated that the rules take several minutes to explain. “I’m starting to understand, like, 50 percent of it,” StarCraft turned poker player Guillaume says in the middle of the game.
It’s not easy to follow, with each player occupying a secret role, but the editing both allows us to feel like we’re in the game with them, and highlights the key moments and reveals.
Consider this a test for viewers: This isn’t a two-screen show, and your attention will be handsomely rewarded.
Clear on-screen graphics do explain the games and soften the complexity. The show itself could use chyrons identifying the players more frequently—at least for this American viewer, who isn’t as familiar with the more-famous among them.
The games are played in an arena that has an industrial look, with a large, circular, main hall, plus several rooms: a dealer’s room, a security room, a workroom, a storage room, and a kitchen. Those spaces are utilized differently depending upon the game.
When the players first enter the main hall, they say things like, “Can you smell all the money that went into this?” and “Damn, Netflix is on a different level!”
Back in the well-appointed house (though I could have done without the blue duvets for men’s rooms and coral for the women’s rooms), the players eat elaborate catered meals and lounge on couches. They discuss what happens in the games, and strategize with each other to form alliances, though this conversation remains game-focused.
One player jumps into a leadership role immediately, taking control of games in ways that are both successful and splintering. “The game involved science, so I couldn’t help it,” Orbit says, and later tells someone, “That would mean I made a mistake somewhere, but I find that highly unlikely.”
Early on, the height of personal drama comes from players laughing and fretting over each other’s birth years, and whether they should have been formally addressing each other. In other words: it’s not Big Brother.
The characters to have depth; some are grating, others fade to the background. YouTuber Jun-bin says, “I wanted to be the highlight of episode one,” and it’s both a self-aware joke and a bit arrogant.
All of this makes The Devil’s Plan not just a great addition to the growing collection of great South Korean competition reality TV on Netflix, including Physical: 100 and Siren: Survive the Island, but to American competition reality TV.
The Devil’s Plan bringing the energy I wanted from Netflix’s reboot of The Mole and the kind of smart challenges I wish Survivor would do again, and presenting it in a smart, engaging package that treats its audience as equal to the players.
Note: The final three The Devil’s Plan episodes premiere Oct. 10 on Netflix. Oddly, Netflix announced to press the show was coming in September, but did not announce a premiere date. I never saw anything about it since, even though it premiered at #3 in Netflix’s top-10 non-English TV shows. It was only when David T. Cole mentioned it on Extra Hot Great that I went to look, and found the first nine episodes, which I’m making my way through. Thanks, Dave!
The Devil’s Plan
A brilliant successor to The Genius, offering smart and strategic games for its players and us. A
What works for me:
- The design of the games
- The clever editing
What could be better:
- More frequent IDs of players
- More purpose for the prison component