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Squid Game: The Challenge review: a morbid LARP inside a reality show

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From the moment Netflix first greenlit Squid Game, it stands to reason that the streamer was already bouncing ideas around about how it could parlay the dystopian drama’s popularity into some sort of spinoff simulating the experience of being in the contest. It’s more than a bit morbid to imagine people watching the original series and thinking, “I want to do that,” as seems to be the case with the contestants of Squid Game: The Challenge. But for all of its thematic poor taste, overly self-aware characters, and uneven production values, the show is a fascinating case study in how the unscripted episodic content monster gets fed.

In Hwang Dong-hyuk’s original Squid Game, 456 people whose lives are all being ruined by different kinds of insurmountable financial debt are coerced into playing a series of deadly schoolyard games as part of a secret competition put on to entertain wealthy elites. The contestants are all horrified to learn that losing rounds of deceptively simple games like Red Light, Green Light and marbles leads to being executed by masked gunmen in bright pink jumpsuits. But the promise of a ₩45.6 billion cash prize is enough to keep most of them playing and even coming back to the competition after being set free and given the opportunity to walk away, no questions asked.

None of Squid Game: The Challenge’s players have to live in fear of being shot in the head for incorrectly breaking thin pieces of honeycomb candy or losing at tug of war. But The Challenge — a collaboration from the Garden and Studio Lambert, the production company behind The Circle — goes to great lengths to recreate some of Hwang’s more disturbing scenarios using a massive cast of eager contenders who are all dead certain they’re going to win the biggest cash prize in competitive reality TV show history.

Image: Pete Dadds / Netflix

With $4.65 million up for grabs, it’s no secret as to why any of The Challenge’s participants signed up, and the show opens by highlighting how coming into that kind of money would fundamentally change everyone’s lives for the better. But as superficially different as the players and their dreams for the cash are, it’s obvious from the jump that they’re all avid Squid Game fans who have spent countless hours not just watching reality shows but closely reading them as pieces of a pop cultural text.

It’s always sort of off-putting when competition shows are filled with people who can’t help but inauthentically present themselves in ways they think make them more compelling on-screen presences. Typically, producers tend to weed those personalities out early in the vetting process because of how tricky they can be to edit into the kinds of supposedly organic narratives network executives want. Because The Challenge’s cast starts off so large, though, and every player understands how these kinds of programs are made by creative teams hoping to suss out folks with real star potential, the show often feels like an unintentionally candid depiction of the raw id that compels some people to be on reality TV.

What’s weirdly fascinating about this in The Challenge’s first couple of episodes is how, even though players are clearly trying to stand out by posturing themselves as familiar reality show archetypes, they’re also trying to embody characters similar to those in the actual Squid Game show.

Some degree of narrative roleplaying is always present with shows revolving around casts of ordinary people who volunteer to have their every waking moment recorded by film crews while living in pseudo-captivity. But The Challenge feels somewhat exceptional in that regard because of how awkwardly players’ instincts to ham it up clash with Netflix’s attempts at reproducing beats from Squid Game’s plot. And because the streamer’s desires clearly take priority on-screen, the show has a way of rendering its participants more like enthusiastic Squid Game LARPers than people who came to play their own way.

Thankfully, The Challenge makes quick work of winnowing down its roster of hopefuls with the actual nonlethal games. But as safe as the games are presented as being, when eliminated players wearing bullet hit squibs throw themselves to the ground to simulate being shot, it’s hard not to see The Challenge as a macabre glorification of the original Squid Game’s brutality with little of its social commentary.

You can see the show finding and homing in on its voice after a few episodes. This happens once enough people are gone for the producers to be able to really start creating heroes, villains, and discernible arcs for everyone. It’s only once most of the starting players are gone that any of their personal dramas become engaging because of how much harder it is to self-produce as the games go on. Even though The Challenge isn’t exactly trying to highlight that shift within itself, it’s one of the most interesting things about the show, which probably wouldn’t register on most people’s radars were it not for the Squid Game branding.

None of that’s enough to keep the show from feeling like a misguided exercise in a studio brute-forcing a franchise’s growth with a spinoff that feels morally antithetical to the original’s central ideas. But that probably won’t stop Netflix from renewing Squid Game: The Challenge for a second season.

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