Squid Game: The Challenge is pretty good. It also embodies everything Squid Game condemned

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Another day, another Netflix reality show that no one really asked for. Squid Game: The Challenge, which is based on the streaming giant’s bloody, brutal, fantastically addictive South Korean series, probably wasn’t something you had your heart set on.

Yet, its unusually large scope — 456 players start the competition — and faithfulness to the 2021 thriller’s chilling ambience makes for an unexpectedly compelling watch that’s as good a way as any to pass the time. Isn’t that what reality TV is for, anyway?

Sure, but the decision to expand Squid Game into a franchise (a no-brainer for Netflix, given the show’s wild success) entirely contradicts the anti-inequality, pro-humanity message the original series touted. In it, hundreds of desperate, debt-ridden citizens volunteer, but are then forced to compete in deadly childhood games for a cash prize. There’s a Hunger Games-esque element to the proceedings.

The Challenge follows the same premise, sans actual death. But making a bunch of people fight for money is kind of the exact thing that the original series was condemning.

“Who’s not in debt? We’re facing a recession,” a competitor named Starla says in the first episode, adding that if she wins, she wants to pay off her car and house with the money.

WATCH | A trailer for Squid Game: The Challenge

The most compelling thing about The Challenge is just how many people are in the running for a $4.56 million cash prize. And they’re all confined to a large, windowless dormitory with nondescript bunk beds in neat rows which — like the rest of the pristinely-designed set — is a carbon copy of the original show.

With so many people competing, it’s easy for strangers to sacrifice others without a second thought.

But that becomes more difficult to do as the number of competitors dwindle, because bonds are forged and people who stand out too much are in danger.

‘There is no sense of time in here’

When they aren’t competing in challenges, the contestants sleep, eat and strategize in the dorm. The masked, pink jumpsuit-wearing supervisors who lord over the game also watch the contestants interact from a control room, a funny detail that puts The Challenge somewhere between Big Brother and Survivor

As one player puts it: “It’s like a casino. There is no sense of time in here. There’s no windows, there’s no clock.”

Players in Squid Game: The Challenge are confined to a large, windowless dormitory with nondescript bunk beds in neat rows which — like the rest of the pristinely-designed set — is a carbon copy of what you see in the original show. (Pete Dadds/Netflix)

Though there are initially hundreds of contestants, some are given more screen time than others.  

There’s mother-son duo Trey, a delivery driver, and Leann, a retired New York Times editor; Bryton, a recent college dropout who quickly emerges as the show’s best villain; Steve and Rick, a young mover and an older doctor who form a close bond as the series progresses; and a host of other characters who make The Challenge‘s revolving door format somewhat bittersweet.

It might be the point, but the show doesn’t really let its viewers (or players) get attached to anyone for too long, sending characters away before the audience can build a rapport with them. At least with Squid Game we were on a journey with protagonist Seong Gi-hun. The Challenge‘s emotional beats are more like thuds.

The Challenge stays faithful to the competitions depicted in the series, though a handful of dorm-set social challenges and new games are welcome additions, like a life-sized game of Battleship.

Players stand in life-sized game battleships in a darkened room.
The Challenge stays faithful to the competitions depicted in the series, though a handful of dorm-set social challenges and new games are welcome additions, like a life-sized game of Battleship. (Pete Dadds/Netflix)

Contestants form social cliques 

The social cliques that form tell a more interesting story.

A group of brawny men bet on their muscles to take them to the finish line; some people pair up by race, gender or ethnicity; a handful of women who feel underestimated by the men forge alliances; and two dudes with mullet haircuts immediately take a liking to each other.

Some people are bullies while others think that warmth and compassion will ultimately benefit them. When a single person has to make a decision on behalf of a group, it forces them to walk a fine line between hero and villain. 

A common criticism (or objection) to Squid Game was its brutal violence: players who lost were unceremoniously shot and killed. If you’re queasy, The Challenge is easier to stomach — blood is replaced by black ink packs that explode behind the shirts of eliminated players.

No one asked for it, but what Squid Game: The Challenge does (probably not on purpose) is act as a shining example of what Squid Game the show expressly condemned: abandoning humanity for money and spectacle. 

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