There’s an interlude in the fourth episode of Physical: 100, Netflix’s Korean-language fitness reality competition series, when the remaining 25 contestants take a break from the official challenges to see who can jump the highest. In a series with only nine episodes, it might seem like a waste of time. This isn’t one of the five main physical challenges. No one will be eliminated should they not be able to jump as high as Iron Man, aka Olympic skeleton racer Yun Sung-bin, who springs from a stationary position onto a pile of mats almost as tall as he is without stretching or breaking a sweat. All the winner will earn is the admiration of their fellow competitors. But, as the show progresses past its introductory hall of torsos (one bust for each contestant), one gets the impression that admiration from their fellow competitors is worth far more to these athletes than the 300 million won (about $235,000) prize.
There’s an earnest, contagious joy to Physical: 100 that sets it apart from much of reality competition TV we get in the U.S. It’s The Great British Bake Off, but with fewer shirts and far more contestants. It’s not easy to make a competition reality show that begins with 100 entrants — frankly, that is just too many people to keep track of. There are farmers and fencers, Olympic gold medalists and mountain rescue rangers. There is a gaggle of gym rats who make their money as YouTube influencers, and a bunch of ex-UDT reservists who are now YouTubers too. And, yes, one of the contestants is actually a cheerleader.
The show does a good job of making us appreciate the diversity of athletic backgrounds, even if everyone in the group seems to know one another, or know of one another. “Everyone who works out in Korea is here,” one contestant says in the show’s first episode, amongst the torsos. That can’t be true, but I appreciate the nod to how intertwined the famous-people fitness community can be, especially in a country where 50% of the population lives in the capital city.
But most of us watching are not members of Seoul fitness circles, or Korean, so tuning into a subtitled series that starts with 100 contestants can feel daunting. Unscripted TV relies on character arcs to keep the audience engaged and invested. Physical: 100 uses voice-of-god narration to relay challenge rules to the competitors on screen, but the series notably doesn’t have a host to provide commentary or prompt discussion. In Single’s Inferno, Netflix’s other K-reality show hit, we get couch hosts. They are the audience surrogate, on-screen friends we can watch and react along with. In Physical: 100, the competitors themselves serve that function.
When they are not directly competing, they are admiring, speculating, and cheering on the other contestants, just like the audience. “Won’t one of them end up dead?” one contestant whispers to another as they anticipate a particularly muscular matchup. “The bicep femoris are ripped,” someone else comments at another point in the series’ run, as they admire another contestant’s bulging thighs. “Such a gentleman!” “You’re so awesome!” others call out during a head-to-head competition that includes Choo Sung-hoon (aka Yoshihiro Akiyama, aka Sexyama), a 47-year-old Korean Japanese MMA fighter who everyone understandably wants to be friends with. When Choo inevitably beats his challenger, younger MMA fighter Shin Dong-guk, Shin is simply honored to have had the chance to face off against one of his role models; he leaves the show grinning.
As competition reality TV viewers, we like to see our favorites win, and perhaps feel a certain kind of satisfaction when those we judge as less worthy don’t make it to the end. It’s why we have the phrase “villain edit,” a reality TV term used to describe editing choices made to shape someone into the antagonist of the series. In Physical: 100, there are no villain edits; there are only cheerleader edits, and it works brilliantly to get us rooting for this group of Korean athletes and the handful of non-Korean contestants (including American baseball player Dustin Nippert, who is 6-foot-8, doesn’t speak fluent Korean, and just seems happy to be included). In episode 5, when rugby player Jang Seong-min is knocked out of the competition, he takes time in his exit interview to send a message of support to the players who remain, including the ones who literally just beat him: “First of all, congratulations. I hope you finish the remaining missions without injuries. I’ll root for you from afar.”
Heading into Physical: 100, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Like others who pay attention to Korean pop culture, I first heard of it when BTS member Jungkook watched it on a livestream while eating chicken, boosting the show’s global presence. When I looked into the premise — 100 athletes compete in a series of five physical challenges to determine who has the best “physique” — I was wary. In America, at least, this kind of TV competition could easily digress into a mess of machismo.
But the athletes in Physical: 100 don’t engage in any dick-measuring contests, even if they do roll up their shorts to compare thigh size. For the most part, the competitors are not interested in equating physical ability with social supremacy. Even when they are asked to come up with declarations of dominance — e.g., “I felt like a predator, looking at prey” — it doesn’t feel like their hearts are really in it. They see their own possible limitations — of mental will or physical might — as the real potential antagonists lying in wait.
There’s a shared joy and a commitment to sportsmanship among the athletes in Physical: 100 that keeps the series from slipping into any of the potential ugliness of competition. In Squid Game — a barely veiled metaphor for modern life under capitalism, and a series many Western viewers have used as an ill-fitting comparison for this reality TV show — the fictional characters are constantly coming up against the artificial scarcity of the game, and our world. It hits because that artificial scarcity of resources is often true in our own world too, a function of systemic inequality as status quo. In Physical: 100, there are clear, stark limitations around who can win the money, but there is a glorious infiniteness to the joy and belonging that these athletes seem to find in fitness — this is a gathering of nerds, though we don’t often recognize fitness as something one can be nerdy about.
It’s unexpectedly wholesome, especially because the stakes are relatively low for a bunch of people who seem like they will probably be fine if they don’t win the money. In the end, there can only be one competitor left standing, but these contestants are still cheering for one another — often in the official challenges, and always when they’re just hanging around the mess hall, jumping onto a pile of mats.