Netflix's real-life Squid Game: 'reality epic' or 'shoddy knock-off'?

456 players battle it out for the biggest prize pot in reality TV history

Squid Game: The Challenge
The last contestant left standing in 'Squid Game: The Challenge' will win $4.56 million
(Image credit: Netflix)

"Squid Game" was a 2021 TV phenomenon, a "twisted Korean thriller about desperate contestants trapped in a life-and-death game show".

As Nick Hilton explains in The Independent: "To understand 'Squid Game: The Challenge', you first need to understand 'Squid Game'." 

In the original South Korean drama, contestants participated in a series of deadly re-imaginings of childhood games, which either kill them or carry them closer to a jackpot of 45.6 billion South Korean won (around £28 million). "As social commentary goes, it was an incredibly heavy-handed critique of the country's issues with income inequality; as a sickly compulsive viewing experience, it was unparalleled," said Hilton. 

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It became Netflix’s most successful series ever, which "made it inevitable that there would be an attempt to cash in on the show's viral success". 

On Wednesday, the streaming service will bring the concept into the real world, with 456 players battling it out for around £3.7 million, reportedly the biggest prize in reality TV history.

An 'unexpectedly effective adaptation'

Of course, nobody dies in the real-world game show, "but the effort is terrifyingly cynical nevertheless", said Vulture critic Nicholas Quah.

Netflix may have seemingly taken Hwang Dong-hyuk’s stridently anti-capitalist series, "ripped its provocative critique from its chest, and used the defiled carcass as foundation for an adult amusement park", said Quah, and yet "not only does 'Squid Game: The Challenge' qualify as damn good reality television, it even serves as an unexpectedly effective adaptation of the original K-drama".

It remains faithful to the visual staples of the original, from a cavernous dormitory with bunk beds stacked five high and the green and cream tracksuits, to recreating some the most famous sets.

Hundreds of English-speaking contestants, predominantly from America and Europe, perform tasks familiar to fans of the original. These include the famous "red light, green light" game, the "glass bridge" and the honeycomb game. The field is winnowed down rapidly. Contestants are unceremoniously shuffled off screen never to be seen again, with each elimination adding $10,000 to the prize pot.

'Very hard to look away'

The problem, said Michael Odell in The Standard, is that "this shoddy knock-off" has "none of the charm", drama, danger or jeopardy of the original story, with the hundreds of "real" contestants "simply looking to pay off the car or the mortgage".

It is hard to "root for the little guy pitted against an unmerciful capitalist machine" and easier to "hope the giant cash-stuffed pig drops from the ceiling and flattens them". In the end "the real challenge of watching 456 Machiavellis gossiping in an aircraft hangar is to care".

The fear of death and anti-capitalist themes may have been replaced by a rabid consumerism, "an apt metaphor for modern America, if not an intentional one", agreed Hilton in The Independent, but "Squid Game: The Challenge" is "obviously an epic of its genre". Like most epics, "it's overlong, overblown, and thinks it's much smarter than it really is", but "as a showcase for human desperation, and an illustration of the random brutality of chance, it just about sticks the landing".

It was reasonable to assume that "Squid Game: The Challenge" would be a "cash-in, a cynical by-product of the original's success that would miss the point entirely, and perhaps it does", said Rebecca Nicholson in The Guardian. "But as a gameshow, as the spectacle it sets out to be, it is very hard to look away."

"Squid Game: The Challenge" streams on Netflix from 22 November

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