When Reed Hastings showed up to an earnings call in a green-and-white tracksuit, it was pretty clear that Netflix might have missed the mark on the lessons from the success of “Squid Game.” In 2021, this South Korean drama by Hwang Dong-hyuk took the world by storm with its grim portrayal of capitalism exploiting the desperate for the entertainment of the wealthy. Hastings, being a rich tech founder, seemed more like a spectator than someone risking their life for a prize, and the irony seemed lost on him.
Now, the contradictions are piling up with “Squid Game: The Challenge,” a competition series that brings the vision of the original show to life, minus the mass murder and most of the social commentary. Netflix is trying hard to turn its homegrown hits into lasting franchises, and “The Challenge” is just one part of this effort. It’s a way to keep the “Squid Game” phenomenon alive while waiting for Season 2.
“The Challenge” follows the structure of the original, with contestants competing for $4.56 million through childlike games. The vibrant production design from the first “Squid Game” is recreated meticulously on a U.K. soundstage. However, the sinister and deadly nature of the original tournament is missing, and the point of “The Challenge” seems to be that, if you don’t think too hard about it, the entertainment is still pretty fun to watch.
While contestants recognize iconic sets from the original show, and the absence of a host implies familiarity with the rules, “The Challenge” doesn’t explicitly acknowledge that its cast members know these things because they saw them on TV. The contestants themselves become the highlight of the show, with a diverse pool of competitors from various places, all vying for a significant sum of money. As the show progresses, it becomes more intimate, revealing personal stories and complexities.
The show tries to make us care about these personalities, often using humor to deflate the drama. Yet, with high stakes and an intense environment, contestants crack under pressure, from sobbing to threatening to vomit. The question isn’t whether a “Squid Game” reality show can be as gripping as the scripted version; it’s whether doing so nullifies the impactful points made by Hwang in the first place. “Squid Game” stands on its own, while “The Challenge” is a franker version of the duress many reality shows inflict on their subjects. However, it can’t escape the dystopian fact of its own existence—a treatise invited into exactly what it was meant to critique.