Squid Game: The Challenge

Squid Game: The Challenge
Squid Game: The Challenge
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Drama thrives on the line between life and death. Squid Game was a Korean drama series that streamed on Netflix. There were 456 players who wanted to be rich; only one survived. So when Netflix announced last year that it would create a reality competition inspired by Hwang Dong-hyuk’s brutal survival show — with 456 real people competing for $4.56 million, the largest cash prize in TV history — the response was mostly skepticism. Without a bullet to fear, aren’t all games child’s play?

Squid Game had plenty of twists, but this might be the twistiest: Squid Game: The Challenge is suspenseful and emotionally affecting television that does not kill off a single contestant, thanks to its imaginative take on and oddly endearing cast plucked from all walks of life.

Filmed in England on painstakingly recreated sets, Squid Game: The Challenge looks much like the original: Players in green and white sweatsuits wind their way up candy-colored stairways that could have been designed by M.C. Escher for challenges that include — but are never limited to — an anxiety-inducing round of Red Light, Green Light featuring an equally menacing replica of the giant robot doll from the series. Contestants sleep on austere metal bunkbeds in a cavernous dormitory and are shepherded around by anonymous “guards” clad in pink jumpsuits and eerie black metal masks. And after each game ends, they’re lured by a massive piggy bank made of clear plastic that fills with prize money as players get eliminated.

The 456 players come from different countries, races, age groups and occupations; none seem quite as desperate as some fictional contestants we’ve seen before, but there’s still plenty at stake here. The Challenge participants may not face certain death if they fail at these games — but one competitor has plans for paying off debts; another hopes to help a child with special needs; another wants to break the cycle of generational poverty for her family; another simply wants to retire.

Technically, on Squid Game, it’s all about the challenges — but even the glass bridge would be boring if we didn’t care about the people crossing it. Casting is everything in reality TV, and Challenge producers have rounded up a sizable bunch who fit rather neatly into some classic reality TV categories: the everyman, the hero, the underdog, the dark horse, the villain. Be prepared to love Trey (No. 301), a lanky Chicago delivery driver/aspiring actor playing with his no-nonsense former-athlete mom Leann (No. 302). Other players who shine in these first five episodes include buff student Bryton (No. 432), who says things like “Sympathy? That’s only a weakness”; confident New Jersey marketing coordinator Jada (No. 97); and diminutive blonde Dani (No. 134), who’s used to being underestimated. No one is safe here — your favorite could be eliminated at any moment — but each elimination also brings new protagonists into focus as numbers dwindle down.

Death is not a factor in motivating the producers, so they employ additional “tests of character” and strategic changes to the original games to increase the psychological pressure on their Squid Game players. Many of these changes require contestants to agree on something important — a situation that always makes for good TV. Cliques form and shift before games, as players are often required to betray or align with others in front of everyone. Selflessness is usually not rewarded, nor does selfishness guarantee safety, and it’s interesting to see how these two opposing feelings can manifest themselves unexpectedly. No scripted or reality TV show has stressed me out more in recent months than watching poor Spencer (No. 299) attempt the Ppogi (honeycomb cookie) challenge. When the earnest, anxious software engineer is thrust into a leadership role he didn’t ask for, he’s undone by conflicting pressures from his team and his rivals.

There are many emotions bubbling up throughout this real-life Squid Game — no doubt heightened by stress, fatigue and maybe hunger among contestants. (Players eat somewhat indistinguishable meals out of rectangular tins like their fictional counterparts but yes there are opportunities for “treats.”) The reality competition series made headlines earlier this year when several outlets published complaints from participants about “inhumane” conditions — notably bitter cold during Red Light, Green Light — and “rigged” games. (Netflix denied rigging allegations; the streamer confirmed three players sought medical attention but said all “appropriate safety precautions” were taken; Britain’s Health and Safety Executive assessed the production but reportedly closed its case.)

Certainly the players do look cold during the opening challenge and yes, accommodations appear sparse at best. But friends: If you sign up for a reality TV show in 2023 A.D., let alone one based on a delightfully brutal South Korean survival drama in which all but one person dies horribly — what? You’re gonna act shocked about the conditions? Reality show contracts are notoriously specific about the infinite discomforts — emotional and physical — that might befall participants, and presumably nobody who appeared on Squid Game: The Challenge did so without signing on the dotted line. (Side note: There are 11 mental health professionals listed in the credits.)

Sorry, back to what I was saying. The attention to detail is commendable but some of these attempts to recreate elements from the original just look silly. When players get eliminated, an ink pack beneath their shirt explodes, leaving a paintball-like splatter. It’s a clever (and relatively tasteful) nod to how players are “killed” off in the scripted drama — but did we really need contestants falling over “dead” when their ink pack goes off? Nor was it necessary for us to see the “control room” filled with guards watching prop monitors and pushing prop buttons on prop consoles. And having them film some of their confessionals in grim interrogation rooms feels like overkill too.

These fake, skin-deep decorations weaken the real emotional drama caused by a lot of people going after that pot of gold at the end of the pig’s belly. “Who’s not in debt?” asks Starla, a probation officer (No. 318). “What’s that like, to be able to pay off your house? What’s that like, to be able to pay off your car?” The stakes may not be life or death, but they are very high.

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