In a vacuum, Netflix’s Squid Game: The Challenge could have been an OK reality competition show. Its cast is a healthy mix of sympathetic heroes (the kidney donor, the mother-son duo) and obvious villains (the arrogant bro who compares his competitive streak to, um, Jesus Christ’s). Its games are easy to armchair-quarterback, and its twists relentless. It’s well-paced and slickly produced enough that you might pop on the first episode just to check it out, and then consume the next few without even meaning to.
But Squid Game: The Challenge does not exist in a vacuum. It exists to cash in on one of the streamer’s biggest-ever hits, the 2021 South Korean scripted drama Squid Game. In that context, it looks not like a one-off curiosity but like a brand extension that fundamentally misunderstands what the brand was meant to represent in the first place.
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In the original Squid Game, the competition stood as an extreme example of the dehumanization of capitalism. Its contestants were folks desperate enough to gamble their lives for the chance at a big payday. Those mortal stakes pushed them into impossible choices that revealed the very best and worst parts of their souls, and by extension of humanity itself. Within the Squid Game universe, the games weren’t supposed to be enjoyable to play. They weren’t really even supposed to be enjoyable to watch, unless you were the sort of super-rich sociopath whose greatest thrill in life was seeing people betray, humiliate and ultimately kill themselves for your own passing amusement.
From our universe, however, Squid Game wasn’t just fun but downright addicting. Some of its appeal lay in its palpable anger at a society that rewards selfishness and punishes empathy, that reinforces inequality in the same breath that it champions the myth of meritocracy. More of it stemmed from the wretched humanity of the characters trapped within this sadistic world. And still more of it was rooted in its distinctive aesthetic — prison by way of Playmobil, with a Hunger Games-ian dystopic sheen. Squid Game might have set out to tell a searing allegory about the miseries of capitalism, but its packaging was a marketing boon. Its look was replicated endlessly for promotional events, theme parties and Halloween costumes.
The Challenge builds on the most superficial aspects of Squid Game while ditching — or, really, undermining — the most profound. The premise is much the same, or as close as it can be without getting any Netflix execs thrown in jail for murder: 496 contestants are recruited to play childhood games like red light green light or marbles, and culled with each round until just one remains to collect $4.96 million. The costumes look exactly as they did on the earlier show, from the players’ numbered tracksuits to the guards’ hot-pink uniforms. The sets have been replicated in painstaking detail, down to the Escher-esque staircases that lead contestants to each playing field. No one is shot on The Challenge, but exploding ink sacs mimic sprays of blood when a player is eliminated.
Without life-or-death stakes, however, all the dramatic editing and breathless behind-the-scenes interviews can only do so much to dress up the fact that we’re watching strangers play kids games, and not ones that require much skill or strategy at that. The Challenge attempts to build our connection to the players via one-on-one interviews in which contestants lay out their backstories and life philosophies, or close-ups in which they retch from pure stress or break down sobbing after an ally is sent home. But it’s far better at convincing us to loathe people than to love them.
Part of the problem may be that The Challenge avoids appealing too hard to our sympathies, lest it come across as exploitative. A dad who hopes the prize money might help his special-needs child is a heartwarming premise; a dad who needs the prize money to help his special-needs child would veer uncomfortably close to actual Squid Game territory. But the bigger issue is the show’s fundamentally cynical stance toward its participants. In between games, they’re are subjected to “tests” that purport to measure their character but that really serve as opportunities to gin up drama by forcing players to eliminate one another — which the game then seizes as an opportunity to make everyone look dirty.
The end result is that I spent the first several episodes not cheering for anyone in particular, but increasingly against one specific guy. When he was cast out, The Challenge dutifully gave the villain edit to a different guy, and then another, and another. Over eight hours (of a 10-episode season), I never did latch on to a single player I wanted to see win it all. Irritation can be a propulsive emotion; I found myself getting invested in spite of myself because I was eager to see the players I didn’t like get their comeuppance. But it also left me feeling, well, irritated. Where Squid Game aimed to show us the human souls ground up by this inhumane hierarchy of haves and have-nots, The Challenge seems only to want to reaffirm that, yep, people can be real assholes.
Yet there is one way in which The Challenge feels chillingly true to its source material, and it’s in what isn’t shown on camera. In the past year, reports have come out about the “inhumane” treatment of players on the game, who’d been lured by the opportunity to win big — only to be met with freezing temperatures, grueling hours and otherwise brutal conditions, as well as rigged gameplay that set up some to fail before they’d even really had chance to try. They were, in short, being exploited so some billion-dollar corporation could squeeze out a few extra bucks by selling their distress as entertainment. (Netflix has denied that there was any serious injury on set.)
Seen one way, then, The Challenge would seem to demonstrate the limits of art to speak truth to power. Squid Game could hardly have been more explicit or more scathing in its takedown of economic inequality, and yet it was smoothly co-opted to enrich an already wealthy corporation, at the expense of ordinary citizens who don’t have millions of dollars just lying around. Or perhaps that outcome only further underlines the drama’s central point, about the way the system entraps us all. You can try to take the anti-capitalism out of Squid Game — but capitalism will always find a way to rear its ugly head.
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