Netflix’s Squid Game: The Challenge is a spectacular achievement in reality television competition, faithfully echoing Hwang Dong-hyuk’s hit Squid Game while inexplicably ignoring what Netflix itself describes as the drama’s “violent test of morality and humanity.”
Squid Game: The Challenge is immediately striking, especially with its visual landscape: The reality TV production has faithfully crafted the voluminous sets from the South Korean series, some of which never existed in real life, with elements created by special effects artists.
Into the first of these spaces, a massive enclosed courtyard, walk 456 contestants, dressed in green tracksuits adorned with their numbers. Masked guards, clad in pink suits covering their entire bodies, faces covered by a shield with a shape painted on it, stand nearby. Other guards watch the players from a control room.
The players have come from around the world to step inside their entertainment, the kind of immersion in a pop culture property that 007: Road to a Million failed to offer its players or viewers.
Their excitement is nervous energy as they play the children’s games from the show, because they know what happens if they fail: elimination. There’s an explosion on their chest. Dark liquid splatters onto their skin, dripping down, and oozes through their white t-shirts.
It is black, not dark red, this liquid. Don’t worry! this goo says. The players are not actually being murdered! It’s just simulated murder! Set to beautiful music! Nina Simone’s “I Want a Little Sugar In My Bowl” plays over one montage of players being exploded out of the game.
Some players look shocked, devastated to have lost their chance at $4.56 million, close to the largest prize in reality TV history (just shy of The X Factor $5 million) to one member of the largest cast in reality TV history.
Others dramatically still throw themselves to the ground as if they’d actually been shot with a gun. What fun!
Yes, Squid Game: The Challenge is the bleakest of reality TV competitions, inexplicably unaware of its source material’s themes and its own reproduction of them.
I found myself repulsed, bored, and captivated by its opening volley of five episodes. It will undoubtedly be a massive hit, for the thrill of watching people attempt these challenges and for adhering to reality TV competition conventions.
The reality TV version, created by people who entirely missed what Squid Game was about, or just didn’t care, extracts the games, the sets, the costumes, and the music, and ignores the rest.
Squid Game: The Challenge is like someone watching Ina Garten stuff a turkey, and deciding that looks like so much fun they’ll just ram produce into a random bird’s anus. It misses the point.
Producers have and added their own material to fill even more episodes and screen time than the original series. In those 10 hours, they still don’t find time to develop an original idea, or acknowledge their complicity in creating its own kind of suffering..
The most explicit example comes immediately, in “Red Light, Green Light.” Squid Game: The Challenge’s producers are so dedicated to the reproduction of the game—and, remarkably and admirably, to making them fair competitions—that they ignored the suffering they caused.
For the first game, “Red Light, Green Light,” Squid Game: The Challenge tells us that the players had five minutes to cross its 100 meters, freezing in place at the command of a nearly 14-foot doll.
The game actually lasted five hours for some of them, and players had to stand, frozen, in literal freezing weather: reports say it was 0 degrees Celsius or colder during filming at the massive Cardington Studios, where players were for a full day. During the game, they stood for 20 or 30 minutes at a time, waiting to discover if they’d been eliminated, prohibited from moving.
The episode lies to us and conceals that, instead presenting a version that shows people running, crawling, and being splattered in the black goo when they fail to freeze or make the finish line.
Stephen Lambert, CEO of Studio Lambert (which co-produced the show with The Garden) delights in the mechanics of this scene. That would normally fascinate me, if this wasn’t so oblivious about the suffering it caused. In Netflix press materials, he explains:
“The reality was that we had a complex automated video system and a team of at least a dozen adjudicators that was picking out everybody that moved after the doll stopped singing. So we had a video record of every sector. Then we had a whole bunch of people scrutinizing these videos and identifying people that moved. And if they thought that people had moved, the video would then be shown to the Chief Adjudicator who would confirm that that was a movement that was outside the rules. For the players who got across the line quite quickly, the whole thing lasted about two hours, but for players who were slower, it was more like four or five hours. And obviously that was quite arduous, but everybody had been told it was going to be arduous.”
Netflix denied only that there was any “serious injury” from this arduousness. Yet players separately told Rolling Stone and Vice about various kinds of physical suffering they and others endured, and how they could not help players in distress for fear of being eliminated themselves. Some also claimed the game was “rigged,” citing, among other things, return flights had already been scheduled for after that game.
A player told The Sun, “Even if hypothermia kicked in then people were willing to stay for as long as possible because a lot of money was on the line. Too many were determined not to move so they stood there for far too long. There were people arriving thinking they were going to be millionaires but they left in tears.”
This is as depressing as it is provocative: Why do people subject themselves to the indignities associated with reality TV? Is it truly the allure of money or experience, as some of them claim? Are they, like their fictional counterparts, sunk by debt? Or are there other layers as to why they sign ludicrous contracts, leave jobs and families, to subject themselves to whatever the producers have in store, to whatever degree of dehumanization or incompetence they might find once on set?
And here we come to the show’s other problem: Squid Game: The Challenge has crafted its first five episodes in such a way that it is an actual challenge to know or care about any of the players.
As in Squid Game, the first game thins the crowd, but not to a manageable number.
For me to care about players in a game requires knowing them, what the stakes are for them. They are obviously not facing death, and the consequences for the players—besides losing a reality TV show—remains a mystery.
Squid Game: The Challenge attempts to find its way around this by cutting to an interview in which a player shares a quick anecdote. That does not count as character development. There is no curiosity about their motivations, just brief exposition.
The show does a bad job of translating the players’ emotional state to us. They are simply cogs in Netflix’s money-making reality TV machine, which is obvious yet somehow also escapes the show’s notice.
The players’ humanity is dulled even more by players referring to each other by number, and by the editing, which most often gives its attention to most people only right before someone is eliminated. Even a recognizable face—a Survivor alum, Figgy—floats up and away quickly.
The players do, at times, appear genuinely affected by this experience. Some cry or shake in fear; one gets nauseous. Others console each other. “We’re all gonna die,” one player says, and another declares, “I’m ready to die.”
Because this is happening to people we don’t know, it’s just laughable, not humanizing.
Players live in a massive dorm room with towers of bunks, and eat scant food out of tins, as in Squid Game. No one is stabbed, at least not in the five episodes I have watched. But they do mob one person, clawing and stealing their food.
In between games, some gossip, some form friendships, one whispers a threat of post-game violence. No one intervenes.
When the games arrive, there’s even more contrast between this exercise and Squid Game, whose fictional players faced death if they did not figure out a game quickly enough.
The reality TV contestants know what games to expect from the six games featured in the series, and how to play them. (At least one new game has been expanded into a giant version, clever in design and true to the original spirit.)
Somehow, whether a game is unfolding or people are talking in the dormitory, the first few episodes proceed at a glacial pace.
Producers eventually find clever ways to liven things up and upend their expectations for these games, to pit them against each other for our entertainment. Sometimes a player is selected by producers or by each other for an opportunity, elimination, or mini-challenge. Eliminations happen from an all-player vote and from single players just picking a foe to eliminate.
By episode four, Squid Game: The Challenge veers so far into Survivor or Big Brother territory that its return to Squid Game is surprising. “This is a cruel, vicious, savage game,” one player says.
Another pleads, “Think about each other, don’t think about yourselves.” No one listens.
Squid Game: The Challenge is not the first time Squid Game has been adapted into real-life games. Mr. Beast—the YouTuber who does nice things for people as long as he can film and then monetize his magnanimous acts of service—recreated the sets for 456 players and offered a prize of $456,000.
Netflix has upped the prize considerably, yet is worse than Mr. Beast, simply using people—and the IP of a show that was about capitalism, inequality, and economic desperation—to make themselves even more money.
I found one of the new games fascinating, and the twists momentarily tantalizing. Yet under the umbrella of Squid Game, I kept being reminded of how people were being used, twisted into a shape for us and then dumped into the recycling bin. Sure, they won’t have their organs harvested, though at least that might get the losers some cash.
In Squid Game, the games were watched only by wealthy gamblers who bet on players. Turning that game into real-life mass entertainment means that we are in their position, watching—though not being enriched.
Though Squid Game: The Challenge is being produced for our entertainment, we are the ones paying a massive corporation for the favor of distracting us for a few moments, especially from what its own source material was trying to say.
Squid Game: The Challenge
Spectacularly produced and spectacularly grim, this reality TV adaptation is an average reality TV competition at its rotten core. D
What works for me:
- The production design
- The new challenges
What could be better:
- Developing players into characters
- The slow pace and clunky editing
- Having some awareness of Squid Game‘s story and themes