“Squid Game” remains the biggest show in Netflix history, boasting 2.2 billion viewing hours as of this writing. The dystopian Korean drama series created by Hwang Dong-hyuk premiered on Netflix in 2021, earning six Primetime Emmys, among other honors, for its first season. Given that success, it’s no wonder Netflix is doubling down on “Squid Game” content with its new, unscripted concept called “Squid Game: The Challenge.” The twist? It’s a reality competition show. But not all twists are good ones.
The “Squid Game” spinoff initially appealed to me as an immersive experience and smart marketing. However, after some research and digging into the (unsubstantiated) allegations made by contestants about poor working conditions and rigging, it’s a hard pass for me. Not to mention, there’s the whole notion of “fake death” for prize money. It’s not only cringe but also insensitive. I’d encourage others to think about what exactly went into it, why it’s controversial, and why we could’ve gotten new seasons of Netflix shows that have unfortunately gotten the ax instead.
What’s ‘Squid Game: The Challenge’ About?
“Squid Game: The Challenge” got the green light in June 2022 and started filming in the U.K. in January 2023. Similar to its original iteration, 456 contestants set out to compete for a chance to win a large monetary prize — in this case, $4.56 million. It’s the biggest prize ever in reality television history.
Bigger isn’t always better. A prize of this caliber is guaranteed to breed desperation while feeding into human despair, as seen in the original “Squid Game.” Players would rather die trying than continue their tragic, debt-ridden lives in the real world. We see this desperation for escape in “Squid Game” when Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo) attempts suicide in the bathtub, interrupted by his timely recruitment as a player in the game.
The “Squid Game: The Challenge” trailer shows various shots of contestants in dorms, competing in challenges, and engaging in competitive banter with each other. Text captions in the trailer read “Make Friends” and “Make Enemies.” Contestant sound bites point to savagery, the showing of true colors, trust, and double-crossing. This “How far will you go?” mentality encouraging players to beat “fake death” doesn’t sit right.
Is ‘Squid Game: The Challenge’ Similar to the Original ‘Squid Game’?
The concept of “Squid Game” invites people in precarious financial and debt-ridden situations to compete in traditional Korean children’s games for a chance to win ₩45.6 billion (about $38.6 million). The stakes are high, as the contestants risk life or death to compete. Only one winner emerges alive. Obviously, death isn’t on the table for the competition reality spinoff. The prize is also scaled down to a still-impressive $4.56 million.
There are some concerns with the spinoff. First, isn’t it strange that a new series derived from a show about Korean children’s games doesn’t appear to feature any actual Korean contestants? Cultural disconnect much? Along with this, the entire concept of “Squid Game” focuses on average people who are victimized and negatively impacted in some way by capitalism. They put it all on the table to compete for a large prize because they feel there’s no other choice or way out. Converting this notion into a competitive reality series shows that not only do fictional characters fall prey to the idea, but real-life people do, too. It’s a sad statement about the deeply-seeded financial torment and the desperation of lower and middle-class people who would rather die (literally or figuratively) than continue their lives as they are.
What I haven’t determined yet is how hard “Squid Game: The Challenge” goes in terms of its visual portrayal of death. It appears to mock it in the trailer.
Cringe Factors: ‘Fake Dying’ for Prize Money and Mocking Death
I enjoyed “Squid Game.” If you know me, you’ve probably noticed my viewing tendencies skew dark. Was I horrified and panic-stricken at times? Oh yeah. The graphic, unforgiving brutality and themes of anti-capitalism and elitism were deeply impactful. However, that doesn’t mean the concept translates into a real-life competition.
The trailer shows a clip of a player hit with a paintball and then playing dead, and another casually, almost jokingly, noting she was unexpectedly shot by one. While we don’t have the full context of these scenes, these tidbits seem telling as to how far the show will go with the fake death moments — too far. The idea that the reality show contestants simply get “eliminated” and can go home after something as innocuous as a paintball hit, while the losers actually die in the original “Squid Game,” is in poor taste.
Notwithstanding the current state of affairs in the world, the glorification of dying for the sake of competition gives me pause. Framing death as a novelty in a game for money is insensitive. Playing dead is not something to joke about and may even be triggering for some viewers.
Spinning Off in the Wrong Direction?
What were the development meetings like when pitching and planning for “Squid Game: The Challenge?” I’d like to know if everyone in the room was on board or if opponents to the idea questioned the ethics of conducting a “death game” in real life.
Ultimately, there will be one winner whose life will change forever. That’s great news for them and a total game-changer. The rest of the players? Not so much. One giant winner among a group of losers is a powerful statement, and not in a good way. It’s almost a metaphor for the “haves” and “have-nots” in society.
From my perspective as a marketer and production professional, the notion of a spinoff in a different genre is a creative approach to maximizing an entertainment franchise. It’s also a smart way to keep fans engaged while they wait for Season 2 of the original series. This evolution isn’t thrilling, though, given that, at its core, the concept is condoning death for money. Subtract that idea, and it could land. It would feel different if they adapted, let’s say, “Stranger Things” into a fun, immersive reality competition in Hawkins and The Upside Down. Not exactly the same, but you see the point.
The Accused: Claims Against ‘Squid Game: The Challenge’
By reality show standards, “Squid Game: The Challenge” sits somewhere between “Survivor” and “The Challenge: USA” but on a larger scale with higher stakes. However, you don’t typically hear those contestants in the press alleging poor working conditions.
Contestants have been outspoken with allegations such as the removal of at least one player by stretcher and exploitative conditions, including being forced to stand motionless in below-freezing temperatures for hours of filming “Red Light, Green Light.” Not to mention the ramblings of rigging and scripting the game.
All claims have been denied by Netflix, of course, but one can’t help but wonder what really happened. I’m curious to see if the contestants reemerge in the press when the premiere drops.
‘Squid Game: The Challenge’: Suit Up or Sit Out?
I’m interested to see how viewers receive the new “Squid Game” concept. Will it amass even more views than the original or leave the audience cringing at its glorification of death for money? I lean toward the latter, but if you’ve read my work, you know I’ve been proven wrong before. TV viewers enjoy despair, heartache, and death, so this hot take on reality competition might change the scope of the genre forever — or die trying.
Will I watch “Squid Game: Challenge?” I don’t want to support an exploitative cause. At the same time, everyone will be talking about it. What’s a TV enthusiast to do? The right thing: Skip it! I also feel strongly about supporting actors now that they’re back to work amid the resolution of the SAG-AFTRA strike. Put those views toward other Netflix shows, which always seem to be at risk of cancellation.
“Squid Game: The Challenge” premieres on Netflix on Nov. 22. Watch the trailer: