Late in the first season of Netflix’s “Squid Game” — two-year-old spoiler alert, I guess — an elaborate, deadly contest among 456 needy contestants is revealed to be an entertainment for the viewing pleasure of a handful of crass, wealthy “VIPs,” who watch the gruesome proceedings wearing golden animal masks.
You could look at that situation and see a dramatization of the way a decadent system exploits desperate souls. Or you could look at it and say: All that production effort and they couldn’t monetize the show for a bigger audience?
For everyone in the latter group, there is now “Squid Game: The Challenge.” The reality spinoff, whose first five episodes premiered Wednesday on Netflix, keeps the drama’s kaleidoscopic set design, its outfits and many of its competitions. It gets rid of the messy murder business — sort of — along with most of the uncomfortable ideas.
What’s left is a beautifully designed but empty game box, a creepy dystopia cosplay, an answer to the question of what happens when you take a darkly pointed TV satire and remove its brains.
The worldview of the original “Squid Game,” written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, was a subtle as a gunshot. Debtors, criminals and sundry other last-chancers are recruited by a mysterious organization to compete in scaled-up versions of playground games. One player will win a life-changing sum; the penalty for losing is death.
Through the protagonist, Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), we confront the question of whether one can survive the game, and by extension a ruthless economic system, and still keep one’s soul. The commentary could be blunt and obvious; “there’s a difference between making reference to something and actually illuminating it,” my colleague Mike Hale wrote. But the show had something to say and said it with style.
“The Challenge” keeps the style, with the copycat precision of an A.I. image generator. It opens with a montage of colorful re-created “Squid Game” sets and the singsong of the giant robo-doll that presided over the opening game of Red Light, Green Light.
That game opens “The Challenge,” with the full mob of contestants, dressed in familiar green track suits, stop-start racing to a finish line. Those who fail, by moving when they are supposed to be frozen, are eliminated faux-execution-style; tiny squibs explode under their shirts, spattering them with black ink. (Apparently a simulated shooting massacre is tasteful as long as you don’t use red.) They fall “dead,” like war re-enactors. The survivors are brought to a re-creation of the cavernous prison-dorm and burst out in cheers. “Best slumber party ever!” one says.
The stakes are real, if not life-or-death. For every player fake-murdered, $10,000 is added to the prize pot, represented as in the drama by a giant piggy bank, up to $4.56 million.
The idea of basing a real game on a brutal fake one isn’t inherently bad. (The reports of “inhumane” filming conditions are another matter; Netflix has said that “all appropriate health and safety measures were taken.”) Plenty of great reality shows gamify deadly situations. “Survivor” is a stylized shipwreck. “The Traitors,” from the same studio as “The Challenge,” is essentially a murder mystery.
The problem with “The Challenge” is symbolized by those little pops of black “blood.” It’s painfully literal, yet colorless.
It doesn’t want you to forget for a second that you’re visiting the wonderful world of “Squid Game” — that I.P. is too valuable to abstractify. Besides rebuilding the sets, it tries to reproduce characters from the series, finding contestants to fill the roles of hard villains, doomed softies and sympathetic elders. One group of allies dub themselves the “Gganbu Gang,” using the Korean word for a close friend that was a key term in the series.
But “The Challenge” shies away from everything in “Squid Game” that cut to the jugular — in particular, the commentary about how capitalism pits ordinary people in gladiatorial combat. Like a lot of reality shows, it peppers in interviews with players who want to win the prize to support family or achieve dreams. But the competition is cast as opportunity, not exploitation. “The Challenge” does not want to bum you out.
Why does it matter? Great games don’t just have good mechanics. They have ideas, like Monopoly, the family rainy-day pastime originally conceived to disseminate Georgist concepts about land use and equity. Reality shows have ideas, too, uplifting or cynical or even satirical. A game’s rules are an expression of values; the kind of play that works in a certain game says something about the kind of behavior that works, or should work, in the world.
So if you take a reality competition — even a fictional one — and keep its aesthetics while stripping its foundational ideas, you’re left with, in this case, a well-produced, boring version of “Big Brother.” There’s a lot of generic conflict, a lot of stultifying downtime in the bunk room and way too many characters to try to build investment in.
And because “The Challenge” wants to reproduce the look and gameplay of “Squid Game” while staying all in good fun (a producer likened it to a theme-park ride based on a movie), it’s a tonal mess.
At times, it offers a bleak view of human nature. Players are disdained for cracking under pressure and one contestant, an early “villain” in the narrative, says, “sympathy, it’s only a weakness.” Other times, it is stickily sentimental and heartwarming. Sometimes the show encourages, or at least allows, cooperation; sometimes it forbids it.
“The Challenge” does pull off some exciting set pieces. There’s a wicked twist to set up the pairings in the one-on-one marble game (which was also the dramatic high point of the original series). It even manages to improve on the glass-bridge hopscotch game. (Other events, like a board-game-based replacement for the drama’s tug of war segment, feel interminable.) But even at its best, you’re always conscious of watching an escape-room simulacrum of a famous TV show.
And that’s where there is a kind of message in “Squid Game: The Challenge,” if an inadvertent one: It is an object lesson in how entertainment can appropriate any artistic or political statement. There is no dystopia so chilling that, with the right production values, you can’t sell it back to the audience as escapist fun.
Since “The Challenge” does depend on being escapist fun, though, it can’t embrace this meta idea either. Maybe the biggest loss in this adaptation is the tension between the players and the competition itself. In the original drama, the game was the ultimate villain, and we saw the hero finally rebel against its shadowy makers.
In the reality show, I’d expect no such satisfaction. The only way to win is not to watch.