Netflix has changed. Once a leading creator of shows that launched or re-launched careers (Strangers Things, The Crown), Netflix has joined the ranks of multi-billionaire media giants like Disney that would rather invest in franchise overkill than a good story that can inspire and transform lives. Perhaps the most extreme example of this cultural shift for the tech conglomerate is the reality competition show Squid Game: The Challenge, which follows the same formula of gladiator children’s games (minus actual death) from the smash hit South Korean Netflix series Squid Game that aired in 2021.
The original series became a global phenomenon not only for its high production value but also for its unflinching critique of late-stage capitalism, which strips away people’s humanity when the stakes couldn’t be any higher. While the contestants on The Challenge aren’t at risk of being murdered, their livelihoods—and family’s livelihoods—hang in the balance, making the eliminations all the more gut-wrenching. In the first episode, a teary-eyed contestant who took unpaid time off work to participate in the show asks the producer: “What’s that like, to be able to pay off your house? What’s that like, to be able to pay off your car? I know these may be simple dreams, but what’s that like?” That same contestant gets eliminated in the first challenge, “Red Light, Green Light,” and she looks absolutely crushed.
There is something sick and twisted about Netflix taking a concept that was supposed to rail against capitalism and make it into a multi-billion dollar reality competition show that places financially vulnerable people in Squid Game-style challenges. Let’s investigate a little further…
The 10-episode reality series starts with 456 contestants who compete in a series of physical and psychological challenges to win over four million dollars (pre-taxes, of course). The competition was filmed in 16 days with cameras rolling 24-7. According to Netflix, the challenges could take up to 16 hours a day to film, which took place at Cardington Studios in London. The players’ living conditions are exactly the same as the characters in the original South Korean series, with prison-like bunk beds and structured meals served in small containers. While some may argue this was a move to make the conditions egalitarian, it’s incredibly dangerous since it doesn’t consider people’s varying sizes, which affects their caloric intake. The choice to underfeed players is similar to producers plying reality stars with alcohol to up the drama and get people acting out of character.
All of this is to say—when producers mess with people’s health for entertainment value, they’re crossing a serious line.
The Central Characters
Like the original series, The Challenge orbits around a few contestants who will likely be key players in the end. It’s worth noting the players mimic archetypes we’ve already seen on the show, which makes it obvious that the competition is staged. In the first episode, we meet a wholesome mother/son duo, a villainous gym bro who will undercut anyone who gets in his way, a 69-year-old who is sharper than he looks, and a savvy Millennial who has zero qualms about stealing extra food for himself: “I don’t believe in the values of the corporate world… everything is gonna be gone so do what you want.” Plenty of more contestants get screen time, but it’s clear from the editing that the players above are featured more prominently for a reason.
“This is a social game”
One player notes that the game’s drama is more social than based solely on winning or losing challenges. This is where the reality show deviates slightly from the original series. For instance, in addition to winning challenges, players are randomly selected to participate in a “test,” which allows them to save or eliminate another player anonymously. These tests aim to thin out the players, which adds to the prize fund (each player is worth $10,000), but it’s also supposed to reveal people’s characters. However, when you’re dangling millions of dollars over the heads of people who need money to support themselves and their loved ones, what gives you the right to judge their characters?
The Bias Games
From the very first episode, prejudice is at the forefront of the tensions between contestants. Alliances form based on social factors like race and gender, and the so-called “strong men” pick on the “weak.” In the Dalgona challenge, which is where contestants need to separate the shape from a honeycomb cookie using only a needle and their saliva, tensions come to a head when four team captains are forced to make a unanimous decision before the timer runs out. If they can’t come to an agreement about the shape their teams will be cutting, all four of them will be eliminated. This continues for several rounds with a dozen eliminations before four captains can agree—but the result is far from fair.
One team captain, who has clinical anxiety, suffers a breakdown while Player 432 (the villainous gym bro) jeers at him and riles up the other men to shout, “MAN UP!” Player 432 convinces him to take the umbrella shape—which is the hardest one—by making a “deal” to help him out later. It’s a facepalm kind of moment punctuated by another player who shouts: “He shook hands with a villain!” Immediately after the four captains lock in their shapes, it’s announced that the players aren’t allowed to help each other. Player 432 grins maniacally. It’s horrible to watch this display of toxic masculinity at the expense of someone’s mental health, but The Challenge has no problem tolerating this kind of behavior if it means upping the ante…
In later episodes, the show sees players competing in high drama challenges from the original series like “Trick or Treat” and “The Glass Bridge.” It’s too early to say whether The Challenge will get renewed for another season. Despite the controversy and reports of mistreatment by former contestants, the show is trending on Netflix around the globe. And given that Squid Game is renewed for a second season, it’s possible the reality spin-off will attract millions more viewers as we get closer to the release date.
While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the binge-worthy circus that is Reality TV, it’s important to ask ourselves—at whose expense are we deriving entertainment? And are franchise grabs dishonoring the message of the original story?
Baxter-Wright, Dustin. “Squid Game: The Challenge - How long did it take to film?” Cosmopolitan. 29, November, 2023.
McNeal, Bria, “Squid Game: The Challenge Season 2: Everything We Know.” Esquire. 28, November, 2023.