Netflix's plans for a Squid Game reality series were always a little dubious. Sure, Squid Game is colossally popular. You can see why Netflix wants to squeeze more out of the brand. However there's not much overlap between the defining appeal of a brutally violent anti-capitalist thriller and a straightforward game show. Plus Squid Game: The Challenge can't tap into Squid Game's main source of tension: the looming threat of imminent death. So we're left with a Big Brother-adjacent reality contest where people play simple children's games for a cash prize. Does this make for exciting television? Not really.
A runaway hit in 2021, the original Squid Game is a South Korean survival thriller about a grotesque, dehumanizing contest where 456 strangers compete to win ₩45.6 billion ($35.3 million). Sequestered from the outside world, they're forced to play children's playground games while surrounded by armed, masked guards — and watched by a hidden audience of wealthy sadists. The stakes are deadly: If you lose a game, you die.
Dark, gripping, and deeply political, Squid Game is one of Netflix's most interesting original series. The idea of a reality TV adaptation is pretty perverse. And, as it turns out, a misfire. Despite the competition format of the original drama, the games themselves don't translate well to reality. For instance, do you really want to watch half an hour of people licking dalgona candy?
The setup for Squid Game: The Challenge is a direct copycat, recreating Squid Game's challenges and locations — plus some promising new additions. It features the same distinctive costumes and eerily designed sets, including the cavernous dormitory and the "red light, green light" robot doll. Unfortunately, this only serves to highlight the gap in quality between the two shows.
Lacking a plot or character arcs, Squid Game: The Challenge feels like a generic unscripted reality show in the hollowed-out shell of Squid Game's brand. The scale is massive, but the stakes are poorly articulated. Much of Squid Game's horror lay in the juxtaposition between deceptively simple games (tug of war; marbles) and the possibility of getting shot in the head. The Challenge tries to generate similar stress levels from the fleeting awkwardness of betraying an opponent you've known for less than a week. And without a screenwriter shaping relationships among the cast, it takes way too long for any compelling figures to emerge.
Like the Hunger Games franchise, the original Squid Game took cues from reality TV — a genre founded on manipulative social experiments. Existing in the middle of the spectrum between skill-based competitions (American Idol; The Amazing Race) and reality shows fueled by interpersonal drama (Big Brother; The Circle), The Challenge combines episodic games with social pressure to form alliances and eliminate opponents. But even with $4.56 million on the line, it struggles to create a sense of urgency. Somewhat surprisingly, it displays a rather halfhearted attitude to the emotional underpinnings for this type of reality TV: sob stories and mind games.
We're used to seeing reality shows exploit the tragic backstories of their contestants, documenting health scares, money troubles, and dead relatives. It's also not unusual to encourage cast members to be duplicitous and self-serving, leaning into voyeuristic, amoral thrills. There's a reason why this format lends itself so well to dystopian storytelling. Yet while Squid Game: The Challenge does include some of that stuff, it's not very thoughtfully deployed. There's also a notable lack of serious strategic thinkers among the cast.
I get the sense that The Challenge's creators — which include the British production company behind reality shows like The Circle and The Traitors — were afraid of their own source material. Either that, or Netflix asked them to scale back the darker stuff, highlighting the conundrum at the heart of this adaptation. Squid Game's entertainment value was rooted in horror, which you obviously can't recreate in real life. But if you don't torment the contestants, you don't have a show.
Similarly, The Challenge shies away from delving into the contestants' financial motives. The initial cast interviews mostly avoid discussing why they signed up — a potentially depressing topic. It's almost as if they want to downplay the unpleasant social commentary of the show's premise.
Along with being a grim allegory for late-stage capitalism, the original Squid Game provided unflattering commentary on Netflix itself. Its creator Hwang Dong-hyuk was paid a flat fee for his work, meaning he never saw any bonuses or royalty payments when his creation became a near billion-dollar hit. Other South Korean creatives have also complained about exploitative labor practices on Netflix projects, dovetailing with reports of scandalously low pay from U.S. actors amid this year's Hollywood strikes. In fairness Hwang Dong-hyuk has defended Netflix's decision to launch The Challenge, which suggests he got a paycheck for the spin-off. But what about the directors, set designers, and composers who built the iconic Squid Game setting, recreated here in painstaking detail? Will they see a dime?
For the most part, Squid Game: The Challenge's flaws are predictable. As an adaptation, the basic concept feels icky. As a viewing experience, it's a weak echo of the source material. And on top of this, its ambitious format highlights the difficulty of casting 456 watchable contestants. This lineup was narrowed down from an eye-popping 81,000 applicants, but even then, it's a dicey endeavor because dozens get eliminated in each episode.
In a more typical competition show, the casting team could curate a shortlist of charismatic and/or bizarre people to grab the audience's attention. By contrast, many Squid Game: The Challenge contestants are pretty normal. The first few episodes offer a handful of viable choices to root for (or against), including a mother/son duo, a nerdy MENSA member, a confident faction leader, and a self-aggrandizing jock. But with such a massive cast — and such a high likelihood of early elimination — it takes a while to get invested in anyone.
The feuds and alliances will likely heat up as the competition gets tighter, and the possibility of other new challenges adds some intrigue. But that first batch of five episodes is kind of a snooze. Squid Game: The Challenge is no match for Squid Game itself — and in the annals of reality contest shows, it's no great shakes either.
Premieres: Wednesday, Nov. 22 on Netflix (first batch of 5 episodes)
Who's behind it: Netflix, Studio Lambert (production company), The Garden (production company)
For fans of: Big Brother
How many episodes we watched: 5 of 10