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'The Challenge' is understanding why this 'Squid Game' game show was green-lit

<em>Squid Game: The Challenge</em> is a reality game show based on the sensational 2021 South Korean drama series. But this gruesome, creatively misbegotten concept should never have made it past the first meeting.
Squid Game: The Challenge is a reality game show based on the sensational 2021 South Korean drama series. But this gruesome, creatively misbegotten concept should never have made it past the first meeting.

It is one thing to extend a successful television series in a way that drains its meaning and dilutes its impact. It is another to drown it in greed and to gleefully embrace what it diagnoses as economically and spiritually catastrophic.

Squid Game, the South Korean drama series that was a sensation on Netflix in September 2021, is a work of despair. In it, hundreds of players who are deeply in debt are invited to participate in a secretive competition with an enormous cash prize for those who successfully complete a series of games. What they don't realize until the first game is underway is that as they are eliminated from each game, they will be murdered.

The first episode, "Red Light Green Light," finds 456 people in an enormous open space playing the childhood game in which, if you are caught moving after you're told to freeze, you are out. But in this case, when you are out, you are shot dead by enormous guns embedded in the walls. Shot in the head, the neck, the back. As the group realizes what's happening, many panic and run for the exit, but of course, this violates the rules as well, so they are massacred as they try to escape. They end as a pile of dead bodies against the doors, their identical green sweatsuits drenched in blood. Those who survive, owing to their desperate circumstances, eventually play on. How inhuman it is to conduct this game, to have to play it, and especially to watch it, those are the things that give the scene and the series such weight.

At some point, some person, some fool, somewhere, in some office, flush with the success of the series both critically and commercially, decided it would be entertaining to create a game show — a real game show — that imitated this scenario as closely as possible without actually murdering anyone. And so you have Squid Game: The Challenge.

What makes <em>The Challenge</em> so bad is that outside of the simulated killings and their shock value, it's dull.
/ Netflix
What makes The Challenge so bad is that outside of the simulated killings and their shock value, it's dull.

It brings 456 real people to a vast dormitory designed to look as much as possible like the one in the show. And it begins, too, with the game of "Red Light Green Light." It would have been easy to design The Challenge such that if you are caught moving, your number is called and you are simply out of the game. Had they stopped there, this effort would be empty and pointless, but perhaps only that. Instead, when a player is caught moving, a squib inside their shirt explodes, splattering their chest and neck with black fluid, and they fall over and play dead. It is meant to look as much like a true massacre by gunfire as they could manage, although someone seems to have drawn the line at fake red blood in a meaningless gesture toward, one can only assume, some simulacrum of good taste.

The original Squid Game indicts, above all, anyone who would find such a competition entertaining. The villains are the people who watch, who plan, and who enjoy this spectacle. So what makes The Challenge so creatively misbegotten is that it suggests at best (or worst?) a cynical effort to exploit the most superficial elements of Squid Game while entirely missing its point, and at worst (or best?) an ignorant failure to understand what the show is even supposed to be about. These games are not particularly exciting, in and of themselves. The murders are the story; the brutality is the one thing that makes it compelling. And the only reason the fictional game has been designed by its evil creators is that they want to watch people scramble to save their very lives. The deaths are not a decoration; they are the fabric of the thing.

And so what makes The Challenge so bad is that outside of the simulated killings and their shock value, it's dull. There are too many contestants to get to know and no central characters to grab onto like the ones in Squid Game.

What makes The Challenge feel wrong is that a competition where the first episode is a whimsical game of "mass shooting and panic," complete with squibs, complete with splatter, should never have made it past the very first meeting. That nobody said no, that nobody said "there's an excellent chance that we will be dropping these episodes in the aftermath of a real mass shooting, and simulating one for entertainment will seem like an extraordinary violation of bare-bones decency" is an indictment of everyone involved. Someone — everyone — has lost the plot. (Not to mention what some contestants claim were, in real life, apparently atrocious conditions.)

Yep, this pretty much sums it up.
Pete Dadds / Netflix
Yep, this pretty much sums it up.

In a media environment in which creative people manage, against all odds, to do work that is daring and interesting — like Squid Game was — it is brutal to see the same company that drove that work's success turn around and treat it so carelessly. It's not the first time Netflix has tried to have its cake and eat it too; recent seasons of Black Mirror that aired on Netflix have skewered formats and practices straight out of the service's own playbook, to the point where a Netflix clone called Streamberry was one of the primary villains of the sixth season. But at least in that one, as far as we know, nobody got hurt.

This piece also appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.

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Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.