It’s no surprise Netflix capitalized on their hit 2021 South Korean drama Squid Game. While there’s no threat of deadly consequences in their new reality show, mind games and harsh conditions create an interesting viewing experience that elicits both fascination and unease.
Squid Games: The Challenge turns the already sickening concept from the original show into a form of entertainment, forcing real people to endure psychological torture in order to get the chance to become an instant millionaire.
The reality show is more than your average competition, with 456 starting contestants pitted against one another to win the final cash prize of $4.56 million. Like the original, every competitor is worth $10,000, adding this amount to a giant piggy bank each time someone is eliminated.
Describing the show as a brutal portrayal of society is an understatement — contestants are forced to eliminate one another by vote and turn on their closest allies while enduring freezing temperatures, long days of filming and at times lack of resources. Multiple players have described harsh conditions they faced while filming.
While the fictional show did an incredible job at critiquing the “winner takes all” system that is often seen in society, the reality show further highlights how capitalism can turn people against one another. It was sad to watch the change in contestants’ attitudes as they subconsciously dehumanize their peers, only viewing them as a blockade to their own chance at success.
I found myself thinking I would never act like some of the players if I was on the show, whether that be lying to the people I call my friends or sacrificing someone who helped me to save myself. But I question if a lack of food, mental exhaustion and enticing sum of prize money would steer my decisions.
Another issue with the show is its authenticity. Competitors have said the games were not rigged, but many shared experiences that make the competition seem much more intense than how it was portrayed on television.
The Challenge starts off strong with “Red Light, Green Light,” seemingly identical to the game played in the original Squid Game. Players are told they have five minutes to cross the finish line and will be eliminated if the giant doll catches them moving after it turns around.
The ten minute segment shows players complaining about having to stand still for what seems like only a few seconds.
In reality, filming lasted six to seven hours. Players were forced to stand frozen for up to 30 minutes at a time and the temperature of the room was extremely low. Stephen Lomas, also known as player 243, explained in a TikTok video that making it through this game was one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do, both physically and mentally.
Another game featured from the original was the glass bridge, where players had to guess whether the left or right panel would sustain their weight, a wrong decision leading them to fall from the bridge. In the original, players would descend to their deaths, and the reality show created a similar illusion by showing players seemingly free-falling.
I imagined there was a trampoline or mat below the bridge, but Trey Plutnicki, or player 301, revealed in a TikTok video that the actual players didn’t fall at all. Instead, the camera crew had them do a deep squat before being replaced by a stunt double who actually fell through the panel due to understandable safety precautions.
There’s a fine line between entertainment and torture, and this show is certainly cutting it close. But the 10-episode season was surprisingly easy to watch, especially as more of the player’s stories are revealed and friendships begin to form among the cast. I ultimately found myself completely invested in finding out who took home the millions of dollars.
A second season of The Challenge was recently confirmed, which leaves many questions about what this will look like. Unlike similar reality shows such as Survivor and Big Brother that have been running for years, contestants will still be searching for the best tactics and strategies to carry them to the end.
After a seemingly successful first season, despite threats of lawsuits and reports of controversial conditions, I am curious to see how the series will continue.