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The ‘Squid Game’ Reality Show Is A Brutal Adaptation Of Its Source Material

10:16 AM EST on November 29, 2023

Squid Game: The Challenge players take on Red Light, Green Light
Netflix

"Who's not in debt? We're facing a recession. What's that like, to be able to pay off your house?" These are some of the first words uttered by a cast member in Squid Game: The Challenge, a new Netflix reality show inspired by Squid Game, the South Korean thriller that became one of the most watched streaming shows of all time in 2021. (For clarity, I will call the reality show The Challenge and the original show Squid Game going forward.)

It's a fitting intro given the show's premise: 456 real people compete in a variety of elimination games for the chance to win $4.56 million. This is almost identical to Squid Game's premise, the difference being that when contestants in the reality show are eliminated they aren't killed, as the fictional characters were. Instead, a squib that is fastened to their bodies explodes, simulating a gunshot wound, and they play dead.

Squid Game was not exactly subtle in its themes, and anyone who watched it will understand that Haha, wouldn't it be funny if all this happened in real life? was not the intended takeaway from the experience. That the people who run Netflix had this thought and followed through on it is not exactly surprising—no smash hit can escape being mined for spinoff ideas in this era of television. More surprising is just how committed the creators of The Challenge are to making as faithful a recreation as possible to Squid Game. The result of that commitment is one of the most depressing things I've ever seen on TV.

It's possible that a different version of The Challenge, one sufficiently abstracted from the grim themes of Squid Game, could have been fun to watch. The version we have, however, remains fixated on the themes of subjugation, humiliation, and inequity that defined the fictional version of the game. Where Squid Game touched on those ideas in order to inspire revulsion or outrage from the audience, The Challenge seems to be offering them as a means of entertainment.

The class commentary present in the original show is warped here, because The Challenge takes a perverse sort of glee in examining how far real people will go for so much money. Is the intended theme meant to be "poor people will succumb to their worst urges"? Are we meant to feel bad for them, or feel bad that we are taking a part in this spectacle? With how the show is edited, I think the purpose is more along the lines of popcorn entertainment, something airy to have on in the background, but the stakes and sheer reality of the premise make it impossible to consume the show so lightly.

That's because the biggest strength of The Challenge is also the thing that makes it hardest to watch: the cast. These are real people for whom $4.56 million would be life-changing, and the show goes out of its way to highlight just how desperate they all are to claim the prize. The Challenge is far from being the first reality show to have cast members compete against each other for money, but I don't think I've seen one put this much of its dramatic weight behind the pursuit of money. This means that even when a contestant like Bryton, a former Clemson football player who the producers fashioned into a villain, gets eliminated, there is no feeling of justice or comeuppance. I just felt sad, because I knew how much he needed that money.

The other problem with The Challenge is that the producers have to create additional drama, and they go about it in a cruel manner. Without the risk of death that comes from the original show's premise, the reality show has to rely on putting real people through horrifying ordeals, and unlike in Squid Game, these tests are more psychological than physical.

Here's an example: In the reality show's version of the "cut shapes out of cookies" game, the players already know what the shapes mean, so the producers ramp up the drama by forcing four people at a time to agree on which shapes they will get for their entire row of people. After two failed attempts to agree—no one wants the umbrella—Bryton and two others bully Spencer into grabbing the umbrella, and this poor man gets close to throwing up even before the game starts. Once it does, he's regurgitating bile into his cookie tin and looking like he's going to need years of therapy, especially when he nervously breaks his cookie and gets eliminated.

On a normal reality show, players compete for whatever the winnings are—money, marriage, the spotlight, whatever—but here the game is set up to extract as much human pain as possible while pitting people against each other in increasingly wicked ways.

The season stopped halfway through, in a structured release schedule that will see four more episodes release today, and then the finale on Dec. 6. The mid-season finale of sorts, Episode 5, ends with a brutal cliffhanger: After receiving a treat in form of a picnic, which the players split into duos to enjoy, they find a bag of marbles at the bottom of the basket. Anyone who watched Squid Game knows what comes next: In the best episode of the original, the marbles meant that duos of players, often those with growing bonds to each other, had to compete, and the loser would be killed.

That is not the case in The Challenge, of course; no one is going to die, even if some players are planning to sue Netflix for allegedly giving them hypothermia in the filming of the Red Light, Green Light game. (Netflix has defended itself against these claims.) But the psychological effect of the marbles game remains relatively intact. For example, Trey and LeAnn, a mother-and-son duo who somehow ended up in the game together, paired up for the picnic, and now one must eliminate the other in a game of marbles. These dynamics played out throughout the dorm as players realized what was coming; people who have chosen to trust each other and become friends must now replicate the torture of the original show to survive.

In Squid Game, the audience's disgust is meant to be directed at the Host, who orchestrates the games, and the masked millionaires who watch the proceedings for their own entertainment. If Netflix's goal was to execute some sort of meta-commentary and make everyone watching at home feel like those evil millionaires, then I suppose they've done a good job. Either way, I think I've had my fill.

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