Squid Game: The Challenge, the new reality show spinoff of Netflix’s popular post-apocalyptic series, requires way too much buy-in. Which is surprising: Squid Game was watched by millions of people, becoming the most popular show on Netflix ever. And yet, The Challenge takes it for granted that viewers and contestants alike are the biggest Squid Game fans in the world, but never really succeeds in making a case for itself beyond the IP it’s basically an extended commercial for.
The Challenge (much like the fictional competition in Squid Game) pits 456 people against each other in a series of elimination games and challenges. The last one standing wins $4.56 million. As for the competitions themselves, early in the show almost all of them are pulled directly from the original series, like Red Light Green Light or Ppopgi. As concepts, these games are exciting and they can certainly be tense — as the original series proves.
But none of that tension actually gets communicated to the viewer during the show. The Challenge’s rhythm is all off. It takes the easiest parts of the competitions painfully slow, then speeds through the eliminations and the struggle, blowing by the moments of intensity that should feel naturally built during each episode.
In the Ppopgi game, The Challenge spends a ridiculous amount of time building up the difficulty of contestants choosing which shape they’ll have to cut out, then the easiest shapes get the most screen time as every contestant breezes through the task. When we finally reach the dreaded umbrella, the one that knocks out nearly every contestant is forced to attempt it, the show barely seems to care.
But the series’ most difficult hurdle is its contestants, or more specifically how it presents them. I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with most of these people in real life — they’re probably lovely — but the version of every single one of them that’s present in Squid Game: The Challenge is incredibly dull. For a series with this many contestants at the start, the show seems unconcerned with creating the kind of lasting episode-to-episode characters and personalities that carry reality shows like this. More often, we end up spending a few minutes hearing talking-head segments from players just moments before they get eliminated, making the whole thing feel like a bit of a waste. Worse, it makes the show feel inauthentic — like we’re being introduced to contestants not because they’re interesting or have a dramatic run, but just to make their elimination feel more meaningful a few minutes later.
Adding to this inauthenticity for the whole production the contestants reacting with absolute shock every time they enter a new room. They all gasp and cheer when they see anything from the original Squid Game series, making this entire experiment feel more like an ad for a Netflix amusement park than a real TV show with genuine stakes.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this is in the series’ opening, with a woman talking about how winning this amount of money could change the lives of her and her children. It feels like an insightful look at why people sign up for competition shows like this, and that each person might have a unique or personal reason for being where they are. But she gets eliminated mere minutes later. It could be a trenchant commentary on how these games (and reality shows more generally) are passive and uncaring, but the show barely engages with that idea again.
The real shame of all this is that creating a fun reality show spinoff of an important brand isn’t impossible to do. In fact, Prime Video already pulled it off earlier this month.
007: Road to a Million is unlike Squid Game: The Challenge in almost every way. The series takes several teams of two people and sets them loose all around the world in challenges of strength, cunning, and knowledge. The show has almost nothing to do with James Bond, however, and isn’t even really a competition show. Teams don’t compete directly, and the drama comes from whether they’re able to complete a given challenge or not.
What makes the series entertaining is how effectively it translates the personalities of its contestants. Each ridiculous challenge they’re faced with, from weighing a spider to climbing a mountain, is presented beautifully by the show’s quick cuts between gorgeously filmed adventuring sequences and effective talking-head segments that reveal important parts of their characters and their relationship to their partner. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s the kind of effective, straight-over-the-plate emotional fare that’s the reality genre’s bread and butter. Very little of this has to do with Bond, which just seems like effective packaging for a show about people being put in stressful situations. It’s just a good, old-fashioned, fun show, and the addition of Brian Cox as the (apparently unwitting) narrator is just the icing on the cake.
The primary fear about a Squid Game reality show was always how it would relate to the dehumanization that makes up the dystopia competition in the original show. As it turns out, those fears were founded. The Challenge is profoundly dehumanizing — not because it pits people against each other in a deadly competition, but because it simply has no idea how to tell an interesting human story.