This article contains spoilers for Squid Game: The Challenge through episode 5.
Squid Game: The Challenge gets a lot of things right when it comes to its namesake.
Like the 2021 classic series before it, Netflix‘s ambitious reality competition is all about the details. The production design here is second-to-none, with the cold barracks, colorful yet sterile uniforms, and beguiling M.C. Escher staircases perfectly recreating the iconic look of Squid Game. The competitions, still based on childhood games, are exciting and profoundly stressful. Still, there’s one thing that Squid Game: The Challenge completely misses the mark on in relation to the beloved survival drama.
No, we’re not talking about the fact that the players aren’t killed, that would be insane. Digital media is a tough industry but it’s not “advocate for the wholesale murder of game show contestants in a headline” tough … yet. What we’re referring to is all the, for lack of a better word, bullshit.
The real appeal of Squid Game is its steadfast aversion to any bullshit. While the world of Squid Game is cruel, it is also fair in its own perverse way. The rules established by the titular squid game competition are simple: 456 contestants enter into a deadly competition with each subsequent elimination adding more money to the potential ₩45.6 billion prize for the last individual(s) standing to claim. There is no trickery inherent to that premise because it’s unnecessary. All the twists are already built in. You win, you survive; you lose, you die. It’s extreme but them’s the breaks.
Squid Game even goes to great lengths to reveal just how seriously the game’s creators treat the sanctity of that premise. In the early episodes of the series, player #111 conspires with some guards to harvest organs from corpses to sell for a profit and in return he receives foreknowledge of what games are to come. When the “Front Man” of the games (Lee Byung-hun) discovers this treachery, he not only executes everyone involved but strings up their bodies and delivers the following message to the remaining contenders:
“You are witnessing the fates of those who broke the rules of this world for their own benefit and furthermore tainted the pure ideology of this world. Here you are all equal, with equal opportunity and no discrimination. We promise to prevent such misfortunes from happening again. We truly apologize for this tragedy.”
While it might not be 100% true (Player 001 isn’t facing the same risks as his peers, for instance), that message does capture Squid Game’s very apparent distaste for bullshit. In their own weird way, the game’s designers have indeed crafted something where all 456 players have more or less an equal opportunity. The same can not be said for the 456 players in Squid Game: The Challenge.
Through the series’ first five episodes, these Squid Game contestants are routinely presented with what can only be described as bullshit. In episode 1, players 101 (customer services rep Kyle) and 134 (hospitality worker Dani) are given the opportunity to arbitrarily eliminate one of their own. They “earn” this honor merely because they are the only ones alone in the kitchen chopping carrots to receive the direction over the intercom.
This does not feel like equal opportunity with no discrimination. It feels like a reality show looking for a way to spice up the moments in-between games. And the bullshit continues throughout. Episode 2 finds player 198 eliminated because he can’t convince someone else to pick up a phone. Episode 4 sees a virtual Red Wedding of eliminated players based on a pure popular vote and some fateful jack-in-the-boxes.
What’s worse is that this tinkering extends to not only players’ fates outside the games but within them as well. One of the aforementioned jack-in-the-boxes gifts and in-game advantage to one player but that player is shrewdly eliminated before we get a chance to see what that advantage is. If you recall from the Squid Game anecdote above, getting an unfair advantage in a game is typically a capital offense in this universe. In Squid Game: The Challenge, it’s rewarded.
Squid Game: The Challenge was always going to face some necessary limitations due to the fact that it understandably didn’t want to murder any of its contestants (though it reportedly still got pretty close to doing so). And between-the-games intrigue is an obvious go-to for any reality competition series looking to spice things up. Still, in the spirit of its revolutionary inspiration, The Challenge should have found a way to ratchet up the stakes without any of the bullshit.
Squid Game: The Challenge episodes one through five are available to stream on Netflix now. Episodes six through nine premiere on Wednesday, Nov. 29. The 10th and final episode premieres Wednesday, Dec. 6.