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‘Squid Game: The Challenge’: Where the only thing that will kill you is boredom

456 contestants from around the globe are vying for the biggest prize ever awarded on TV, $4.56 million. The secret of Netflix’s new reality show is that everything is “bigger” but at no point does it seem to matter if it is better

Una imagen del primer episodio de 'El juego del calamar: el desafío'.
Eva Güimil

Two questions spring to mind when you start watching The Squid Game: The Challenge. The first is unavoidable and is resolved after 10 minutes, as soon as the now iconic Red Light, Green Light test doll hunts the first tremors and we discover that the bullets are made of paint. No, no one is going to die in this adaptation. This was something that its creators had clarified during its presentation, as though it were necessary, although maybe someday it will be. The second question looms in the back of our minds throughout the contest. Is this the excellent material Netflix was referring to when it informed us that by sharing accounts, we were reducing its “ability to invest in creating great stories, told through series and movies of the highest quality”?

That statement made me feel like an American at Kennedy’s inaugural speech. “Ask not what Netflix can do for you; ask what you can do for Netflix.” Being naïve, I believed that maybe if my mother stopped sharing my account to watch Turkish soap operas, Mindhunter would have a worthy ending, great series like Orange Is the New Black or House of Cards would return to production, and the abrupt cancellations would cease. But no, what we get in return is a reality show because they repeatedly tell us that traditional television is dead. But it is becoming more and more common for platforms to offer us content from traditional television.

The success of The Squid Game was somewhat remarkable and even came as a surprise to Netflix itself. A local product that seemed incomprehensible outside of South Korea became the most watched content on the platform and, perhaps more importantly, a topic of endless conversation. The critics were not too enthusiastic, the scenery was shabby and the script was flawed, but it oozed originality and a refreshing boldness amid so many productions that seem to have been produced on the basis of a market study. Such a success could only be overexploited. An unnecessary sequel will soon be released — contrary to what usually happens, the series was successfully wrapped up — and now the reality show has come out. The paradox stems from the fact that its creator, Hwang Dong-hyuk, conceived it as an allegory of modern capitalist society and now it has become a glossy cog in the wheel that he was denouncing.

Contestants are organized in four rows to compete in ‘Squid Game: The Challenge’.
Contestants are organized in four rows to compete in ‘Squid Game: The Challenge’.COURTESY OF NETFLIX

The production by The Garden and Studio Lambert, which made the successful The Traitors, delivers an unprecedentedly mammoth show. It is the most ambitious reality show ever filmed. It features 456 contestants from all over the world — although it did not take long to see that, as usual, “all over the world” refers to the area from Washington to Florida plus a couple of Commonwealth countries — who aspire to the biggest prize ever awarded on television: $4.56 million. The secret of the show is that everything is “bigger”, but at no point does it seem to matter if it is better.

The replica is perfect and this is evident in the scenery of the children’s games, the uniforms of the participants and guards, the killer doll and the Dalgona cookies. However, it fails to deliver what a dash of morality cannot provide: the desperation that led ordinary people to risk their lives for money in the series. Most people here just want to “fill in the gaps,” as the lucky ones say on December 22. One does not watch with the same interest how a stranger sucks a cookie if his life is at stake or if he is only interested in covering the payments on a Mazda.

The room full of bunk beds where the participants sleep in ‘Squid Game: The Challenge’.
The room full of bunk beds where the participants sleep in ‘Squid Game: The Challenge’.PETE DADDS/NETFLIX

The contestants are the main attraction of any reality show and here we find the usual profiles on any Anglo program. There is an enthusiastic sportsman with the look of a high school stalker. “Compassion is only a weakness, my greatest strength is manipulation,” he proudly states only to assure us seconds later that he is competitive because “Jesus was competitive.” If anyone can’t remember whether the competitive Jesus appeared in Luke or Matthew, check out Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s superb book, Jesus and John Wayne, which explains the curious misappropriation of Jesus for these types of characters. There are several participants who think they are Clint Eastwood and play the innocuous Warships challenge as if they were conquering Iwo Jima. Then you have a couple of old men who, surprisingly, nobody tries to be friends with, thinking that they might be the masters of the show, just like in the series. In fact, there are plenty of moments where the contestants act as if they haven’t seen the series, too many to make the script they supposedly are not following seem believable.

A contestant tries to pass the Dalgona cookie test in the second episode of ‘Squid Game: The Challenge’.
A contestant tries to pass the Dalgona cookie test in the second episode of ‘Squid Game: The Challenge’.COURTESY OF NETFLIX

There was no shortage of accusations of rigging and complaints about the conditions in which the challenges were carried out. The tabloid newspaper The Sun wrote an article claiming that some contestants had come close to dying from hypothermia. The filming coincided with a cold spell in the UK, the location chosen for the recording of the program. Netflix was quick to downplay the issue and assured that it was “deeply” concerned about the health and safety of the cast and crew. Indeed, at least in the episodes that the media have had the chance to see before the premiere (the first five, the ones released this Wednesday; on the 29th another four will be released and on December 6th, the final episode) the challenges seemed so trivial that we might as well have been watching a reality show about The Durrells. The fact that the contestants of a reality show based on one of the most sadistic and bloody series are such complainers is paradoxical, as if to say, “I’m willing to risk my life, but I don’t want to catch a cold.” The noise made over the alleged severity of the tests seems more like a clever publicity stunt to put the spotlight on a product that is straining to appear to be much more than it actually is.

Squid Game: The Challenge tries to convince us that we are going to see something we have never seen before, but the challenges are no more entertaining than those of any episode of Takeshi’s Castle, and they are much less likely to surprise us because of their brutality, since reality shows have long since crossed all borders, at least the legal ones. In Fear Factor years ago we got to see a woman drink donkey urine and semen and it wasn’t even for an obscene amount of money, just $100,000. In case anyone is interested she claimed it had “a slight tinge of hay.”

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