clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Netflix’s Squid Game reality show is kinda great. Oh no.

Oops, they did it again (weaponized the desperation of the proletariat for fun).

A person wearing a full-face mask and hoodie.
Squid Game: The Challenge is like Squid Game, sometimes accidentally!
Netflix
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

To love Squid Game: The Challenge means succumbing, at least a little bit, to media illiteracy.

The reality show, which was initially conceived by a British production company, is barely based on the acclaimed 2021 South Korean Netflix series that is its namesake. Squid Game was about many things, but it was ultimately about capitalism’s vice grip on humanity. In it, 456 players — all of whom are living in dire financial debt — are given a wicked opportunity: win a series of children’s games for a chance to erase all their debt, or die trying. Because their hardships have rendered their lives pointless anyway, they accept.

Contestants risk getting shot by a robotic doll (among other brutal challenges) for the chance to not be poor. To stop the debts they’re drowning in, they’d doom their best friends to death. Even if you “win” Squid Game, there’s no winning because you won’t ever be the same person you were before, and not in a good way. In the final stretch of the original show, our hero finds out the games were conceived by impossibly rich people who were just bored, all for their entertainment.

Squid Game’s blistering burn is that it takes place in the real world. Its games and their consequences might have been fantasy, but the howling financial desperation its characters face isn’t.

That in mind, it feels as though the showrunners who created Squid Game: The Challenge watched the original show and said, “Boy those bored rich people were onto something.” Similarly, Squid Game: The Challenge contestants seem like they watched the bloody series and thought, “Yeah, I could definitely win.”

A large doll faces a field of tall grass, a leafless tree, two tiny Squid Game characters, and a looming digital timer set for five minutes.
Remember this diva?
Pete Dadds/Netflix

The reality competition also takes 456 people and brings the games — the red light/green light machine gun doll, the intricate cookie-cutting exercise of death, the betrayal-inducing marble collection, etc. — to life, sans murder. Instead of getting killed, players pantomime keeling over when a tiny ink sack on their person detonates, signaling they’re out of the game. Each participant elimination, just like the original, adds $10,000 to the pot for a maximum of $4.56 million in prize money — the biggest in reality television show history. The new show also imports other elements from its homicidal progenitor, like the sky-high four-tier bunk beds and guards in flamingo-pink uniforms.

So, what’s different? Well, besides the lack of dying changing the stakes, no one is too bothered about capitalism. Everyone thinks they can win! Some even talk about the show as some kind of learning experience or a way to extend their social media reach. At one point, they cheer when they see their prison-like bunks. If this is the grim send-up of modern life that audiences across the world loved and feared, no one told the people competing.

The gigantic prize money, terrific set design, and signature challenges create a novel reality TV experience. Everyone’s scrambling, strategizing as best they can to figure out a game that seems to be created on the fly. It creates an existential panic: regular, real people grappling with their fragile existence in The Challenge bring out the worst in everyone.

It turns out that even though Netflix cleaved away Squid Game’s commentary on greed and ruin, you can’t make an actual reality show based on a fake dystopian reality show without exposing a little actual dystopia. Even in the often-horrifying sea of existing competitive reality, there’s nothing quite like The Challenge.

The best part of Squid Game: The Challenge is that no one’s figured it out yet

What makes The Challenge so thrilling is that, despite the familiarity with the source material, it’s still brand new. Competitive reality shows like Big Brother, Survivor, Top Chef, and RuPaul’s Drag Race have been on the air long enough that contestants who go on them know what kind of strategies work and can, if they follow previous seasons, effectively put themselves in the best position to win. Whether it’s forming an alliance, using a backdoor veto, or not cooking risotto, participants have largely figured out the mechanics of these shows and how to play the game.

Because these 456 people are the first ones to play, there’s absolutely no proven winning strategy in The Challenge.

The show’s unapologetic commitment to shock becomes clear early in the season, as players try and pick the shapes for what’s called dalgona. Contestants have a tiny needle they need to use to cut a shape from a brittle honey-sugar biscuit without cracking it. They only have 10 minutes to scrape their shape out. There are four different shapes — circle, triangle, star, umbrella — and the more intricate the shape (umbrella) the more difficult it is to carve out. The Challenge makes four team captains choose the shape that their team has to chisel, with the catch being that the decision must be unanimous and be made in two minutes.

A person licking a sugar cookie inscribed with a circle.
This man got a circle in the dalgona game — one of the easier shapes to cut out of this delicious sugar thing.
Netflix

Obviously, no captain wants to doom their team and choose the umbrella. Scratching that little shape would be difficult, even with a surgeon’s steady hands. There’s also no benefit in choosing the hardest shape. No one in this game eyeing $4.56 million is going to say, “Thanks for choosing the umbrella, I’ll have your back next time.”

The first set of four team players grumble and can’t come to a unanimous decision within the 120 seconds time limit, and they’re all eliminated. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Ink packets explode. Their eliminations are projected on a jumbotron for all the other players to see. Then the next set of team captains are sent in, having just witnessed four people get taken out. These ding-dongs can’t come to a decision either. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Ink packets explode. Four new team captains are sent in.

The players cannot believe how fast eliminations are happening — and no one wants the umbrella. Not a single player on that set knows what to do: pick the umbrella and doom your team or hope the other people chicken out first? Watching eight players get eliminated for bickering makes the decision even more urgent.

It’s moments like this, where contestants are faced with the panicked realization of just how fragile their time in this game is, that the show truly excels. There’s no magic formula, no prior knowledge of how this is all supposed to go. These guinea pigs must figure this all out on their own, even if it means sucking it up and scratching a humiliating parasol out of a crumbling cookie.

It’s surprisingly easy to enjoy watching people compete on this show ... until it isn’t

The Challenge’s uncertainty creates compelling television in the form of contestant 432, a truly great reality show villain. I refer to this person as 432 because everyone on The Challenge is referred to by a number, a cutely deliberate decision to keep with the dehumanizing spirit of the original series. Calling someone by a number instead of their name is more clinical. It puts the onus on the contestants to stand out and be more than their number, but if they stand out too much they become targets.

With that, my god is 432 annoying. The editors are aware of this, showing us all the moments of this terminally confident former college football player at his cockiest and absolute worst.

People in green track suits watch something off-camera.
Contestant 432 is one of the show’s great villains.
Netflix

Early in the game, 432 asserts himself as a dominant force, gathering up other muscly men to form an alliance. 432 and his buddies bully the other players in all aspects of the game, from sleeping arrangements in the bunks to threatening a fellow player for calling him a “frat bro.” 432 thinks he knows best in this game that no one knows how to play. It’s infuriating, and even more infuriating is watching his fellow players bend to him.

One of the challenges is based on the popular board game Battleship. Of course 432 thinks he’s a savant at Battleship. How does one become “good” at a game that’s largely contingent on lucky guesses? 432 knows. 432 is sure of it. 432 thinks his guesses are better than anyone else’s.

While both the original and this reality show want to make clear that money makes people act in the worst ways possible, I have a gut feeling that 432 would act like this for free. And overall, that makes it easier to watch him compete in this wretched game.

But I found myself feeling slightly bad for 432 and the rest of his cohort when I learned that the show might have committed some light human rights abuse while filming.

According to a report from Rolling Stone, Netflix made the contestants sign NDAs, but a few anonymous players have come forward and alleged that contestants were collapsing during the “Red Light/Green Light” game. In the game, participants had five minutes to cross the finish line; the timer would stop and start with each red light or green light. But the players told the magazine that the game took half a day or so to film, and they had to hold poses for some 30 minutes at a time, which led to people falling ill and falling down. Some allege that the empty airport hangar they were shooting in was extremely cold, while others accused Netflix of fixing some of the competition so its most camera-ready contestants could get through to the next round. It’s also unclear how much sleep these players could get each night or what their shooting schedules are like. Because the show features confessionals from contestants, we do know that the food they were getting didn’t taste good and wasn’t exactly filling. Imagine having to deal with all of that and 432!

People in green track suits stand at a pink line.
Apparently there was maybe some alleged undisclosed light torture during the red light/green light challenge.
Pete Dadds/Netflix

This isn’t the first time that contestants on a Netflix reality show have come forward about unacceptable living conditions. Yet, there’s something malevolently comical about auditioning for a show blatantly based on the most sadistic elements of a brutal social commentary — and then being shocked that the people behind the show are treating contestants poorly and may even be rigging the games.

A streaming service airing a sharp satire, and then picking up a reality show that riffs on the cruelty of those fictional contests while creating new ways to torture its very real players, thereby producing a riveting TV show and accidentally giving viewers the full Squid Game experience is a level of caricature that Netflix couldn’t have written itself. We’re getting what we paid for, I guess!

The Challenge went to great lengths to scrub away the satire and symbolism of the original series. With many of its contestants focused on self-betterment and keeping a manically fun attitude, the new show isn’t true to the themes of its namesake at all. Yet seemingly accidentally, it reinforced the ideas — the absence of morality, sheer desperation, and idiocy, the deranged things people will do in the name of capitalism — that the source material warned us about. The show nailed Squid Game, down to how entertaining it would be to watch this all go down.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.