'Squid Game: The Challenge' Review: Netflix Reality Show Is Dystopian

‘Squid Game: The Challenge’ Review: Netflix Reality Show Is Dystopian

From the moment Reed Hastings tuned into an earnings call wearing a green-and-white tracksuit, it was clear Netflix may have learned the wrong lessons from the success of “Squid Game.” In 2021, the South Korean drama — created, written and directed by auteur Hwang Dong-hyuk — became a surprise global sensation with a grim and violent allegory of capitalism exploiting the desperate many for the enjoyment of a wealthy few. Hastings, a rich and powerful tech founder, was closer to one of the titular game’s masked spectators than a contestant risking their life for a chance at the prize, though he didn’t seem to see the irony.

This week, the contradictions only heighten with “Squid Game: The Challenge,” a competition series that brings Hwang’s vision to life, minus the mass murder and most of the social commentary. The show is Netflix’s latest answer to an enduring problem. Without legacy franchises of its own, the relatively young company has to work overtime to turn its homegrown hits into durable wells of IP. “Squid Game” itself will get a Season 2 at some point next year, also helmed by Hwang, but brand-building has no time for quality control. “The Challenge” itself is just one part of a multi-pronged attempt to capitalize on the “Squid Game” phenomenon; next month, L.A.-area fans can enroll in “Squid Game: The Trials,” where they can pay for the privilege of pretending to debase themselves for a slim chance at erasing their debts. Reality TV and immersive “experiences” are cheaper and faster to whip up than a scripted production, and both help to feed the beast over the long wait.

“Squid Game: The Challenge” copies the structure and look of the original, narrowing down a field of 456 contestants vying for $4.56 million with a series of childlike games. Part of what helped the first “Squid Game” transcend language barriers was its simple, colorful production design, which “The Challenge” recreates to a tee on a U.K. soundstage. The pink jumpsuits, mock playgrounds and M.C. Escher-like staircases are all present and accounted for, but they’re meant to contrast with the sinister, deadly nature of the tournament, where each “eliminated” (read: executed) contender means more money in the pot for the eventual victor. Like “Battle Royale” and “The Hunger Games” before it, the point of “Squid Game” is that in a deeply unequal society, entertainment comes at a steep moral price. The point of “The Challenge” is that, if you don’t think too hard about it, that entertainment is still pretty fun to watch. 

“The Challenge” has an odd, indirect relationship with its inspiration. Contestants clearly recognize now-iconic sets like the arena for Red Light, Green Light, a race to run across a room without being caught in motion by a giant robot doll. The group cheers when they see the signature bunk beds stacked to the ceiling, reference Korean terms like “gganbu” that “Squid Game” helped popularize abroad, and have clearly been coached by producers to play dead when they’re knocked out, a burst of black paint swapped in for a bullet wound. (The absence of a host or voiceover to explain the rules implies “The Challenge” expects a similar familiarity on the part of its viewers.) But beyond adding new games and twists to keep players on their toes, “The Challenge” doesn’t explicitly acknowledge that its cast members know these things because they saw them on TV.

Said cast members are the inarguable highlight of “The Challenge.” On the one hand, the show is distinguished by its scale. Even by the standards of modern reality, a genre always upping its own ante, “The Challenge” features an enormous pool of competitors, sourced from a vast array of places, competing for an astonishing sum of money. (While players hail from locations as diverse as America, Australia and Italy, “The Challenge” is strictly Anglophone, in contrast with “Squid Game” itself.) But as the show continues beyond its initial flex and can concentrate on a rapidly shrinking number of stars, “The Challenge” comes alive on a much more intimate scale.

Some participants seem well-schooled in the conventions of reality mess; one labels their antagonist “a villain,” already conscious of the archetypes they’ll be flattened into on our screens. Others, like a former newspaper editor who signed up with her own son or a doctor who reveals he has a tattoo for each of his 18 grandchildren, are rarer finds who don’t come off as typical reality performers even as they prove to be exceptional ones. Even a braggadocious football player who quickly alienates his peers gets an affecting backstory about growing up as a biracial kid with a white single parent, drawn out during an intake interview repurposed as a confessional. 

How “The Challenge” gets us to care about these personalities is much less endearing. “What’s it like to be able to pay off your house?” someone wonders, shortly before they’re sent home. “The Challenge” sometimes uses humor to deflate its own sense of drama, as when one woman responds to a telltale black spot with a nonplussed “Oh, shit. Really?” But given the money involved, the stakes are still quite high, if not life or death, and the environment ruthlessly intense. As the game design forces contestants to throw each other under the bus or submit themselves to blind, cruel luck, we watch them crack — sobbing, hyperventilating, even threatening to vomit. 

The question was never whether a “Squid Game” reality show could be as gripping as the scripted version; it’s inherently interesting to see people in extreme circumstances try to scramble their way through. Rather, the question is whether doing so would nullify the points Hwang so effectively made the first time around. In the end, “Squid Game” endures as its own achievement, and “The Challenge” is simply a franker version of the duress many reality concepts inflict on their subjects. (Unlike in “Squid Game,” at least they know what they’re signing up for.) But the show can’t escape the dark, dystopian fact of its own existence: a treatise invited into exactly what it was meant to critique.

The first five episodes of “Squid Game: The Challenge” will stream on Netflix on Nov. 22, followed by four episodes on Nov. 29 and the finale on Dec. 6.