"Squid Game: The Challenge": How Soon Will It Cease to Be Innocent Entertainment?
On November 22, 2023, Netflix released the first episodes of the reality show "Squid Game: The Challenge," based on the immensely popular South Korean series "Squid Game." The final 10th episode aired on December 6, where the remaining two participants engaged in a final showdown for the right to claim $4.56 million. Understandably, only one winner emerged from the competition. In total, the show featured 454 players, and unlike the series, none of them faced fatal consequences. But is such seemingly harmless emulation of pop-cultural phenomena as depicted by the reality show creators truly benign in real life?
Despite millennia of civilization, culture, ethics, and philosophy, gladiatorial battles have never ceased to captivate humanity. "Ave, Caesar! Morituri te salutant! (Hail, Caesar! Those who are about to die salute you!)" – with this phrase, Roman gladiators entered the Colosseum arena. Today, participants in numerous reality shows similarly enter the stage beneath studio spotlights with modified interpretations of the same phrase. Whether it's "The Bachelor," talent shows like "The X Factor," quiz competitions, or culinary shows like "Hell's Kitchen," these programs share a common element of elimination, psychological pressure, and extreme emotions orchestrated by entertaining producers. Watching the tears of those who were not fortunate enough to reach the final and win the coveted prize easily evokes the image of them choosing death on the hot sands of a gladiatorial arena.
The Squid Unleashed Its Tentacles
The series "Squid Game," directed by South Korean filmmaker Hwang Dong-hyuk, topped the list of the most-watched series on Netflix in 90 countries worldwide (with 142 million viewers in the first 4 weeks), making it the most popular series in Netflix history. What is the secret?
In pop culture, there's an abundance of films and books dedicated to survival games. William Golding set the tone with his novel "Lord of the Flies," where the thin veneer of civilization crumbles in the struggle for power and the best piece of prey, even in the innocent minds of children. Adults are no different, as seen in works like "The Hunger Games" or Stephen King's "The Running Man." However, the main distinction of most of these stories from "Squid Game" was that they unfolded in a gloomy and dystopian future.
"Squid Game" immediately captivated viewers with its setting – here and now. This allowed the audience to more easily identify with the characters of the story. Hwang Dong-hyuk had been toying with the idea for the series, partially based on his own memories of a challenging youth, since 2008, until Netflix became interested in the script as part of its global strategy for producing foreign-language series. The series about a deadly tournament where South Korean proletarians die like flies for a "meaningless piece of metal" became, on the one hand, a statement about the issues of social inequality in South Korea. On the other hand, it criticized not only the debauched wealthy individuals entertained by the bloody show but also the infantile and irresponsible poor who voluntarily agreed to participate in this inhuman meat grinder. The series concluded with the victory of Player 456 but left a strong hint that the story is far from over, and a second season is inevitable.
Indeed, it would be unwise not to continue a series that received 14 Emmy nominations and made a remarkable impact on Vans' white sneakers sales, which increased by 7800% after the premiere of "Squid Game," as well as other show-related merchandise – the green tracksuits of the players, masks, and the red uniforms of the tournament guards.
"Squid Game" not only influenced mass culture but also became a significant factor in South Korea's presidential elections. Recognizable attributes, the show's stylistic elements, and its socio-economic narratives were actively used by candidates during the election campaign – from campaign posters in the recognizable style to references in political rhetoric. Even North Korean "comrades," living in a dystopian totalitarian society, couldn't resist criticizing the series, mocking the "ferocious grin of South Korean capitalism." Well, they should have at least watched it…
From YouTube to Netflix
The emergence of a reality show based on "Squid Game" was inevitable – simple competitions, recognizable aesthetics, and the competitive spirit of the project could easily be replicated in real life. The amateur boom on TikTok and other social media platforms spread like wildfire.
However, American YouTuber James Donaldson, known as MrBeast, achieved the most success. In 2021, in his YouTube project, he recreated the interiors and contests featured in the series. The number of participants matched – 456 people – but the prize was more modest, only $456,000. The project cost Donaldson $3.5 million, with a lion's share going towards creating sets and props. Yet, when your audience consists of 77 million subscribers, recouping expenses no longer seems like an insurmountable task. The success of the amateur project did not go unnoticed by the big players in the television industry. Since the rights to "Squid Game" belonged to Netflix, it is no wonder they decided to launch the production of a full-fledged reality show.
Show in the Spotlight
While the world awaited the second season, a myriad of unpleasant events occurred, including the Russo-Ukrainian War, the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, the creation of the so-called new "axis of evil," and many others. The focus of viewers shifted from streaming novelties to news summaries. The pause dragged on. Presumably, that's why Netflix's leadership decided to launch an extensive promotion for the second season, namely – the reality show "Squid Game." In many ways, the show replicated the narrative twists of the original, including deadly contests – without real deaths, of course.
The production was handled by the British studio Lambert, known for reality shows such as "The Circle" and "Race Across the World." Sets recreating the world of "Squid Game" were built in six massive pavilions throughout London. Participants in the show – mostly Americans and Britons, although the project was announced as international – spent 16 days in green tracksuits and lived in a giant dormitory with multi-level bunks. Just like the characters in the series.
Let's not spoil the intrigue with spoilers; let's just say that in the final episode, two players, a man and a woman, decided who would win the grand prize of $4.56 million using the children's game "Rock, Paper, Scissors." This episode, filled with passion, hardly lagged behind the dramatic resolution of a TV series.
However, viewers were slightly disappointed – they were already tired of waiting for the second season, set to be released at the end of 2024, and instead got a "spin-off" with children's contests. The project received mixed reviews and average ratings (63% on Rotten Tomatoes). Still, most likely, it will be renewed for a second season. As for the criticism, it undoubtedly existed – pessimistic forecasts that attempting to recreate the story of how despair and the desire for wealth awaken people's lowest instincts, disconnect and override the basic instinct of self-preservation, supposedly did not come true.
Are we hopeless?
Participants in the real "Squid Game" showcased not the worst, but the best human qualities in each episode: unity, mutual support, selflessness, and empathy. The final hugs between the winner and the defeated were a testament to this. Could it be that humanity is not so hopeless? Skeptics raised this question but then emphasized that the reality show cannot be considered a pure experiment. Yes, participants faced psychological pressure, overcame physical challenges and their own fears, but... the threat of real death did not loom over all this. Therefore, no one can guarantee that the good Samaritans who participated in the show wouldn't turn into cunning, treacherous, and cautious cannibals if they knew that after leaving the project, they wouldn't return to their cozy apartments but end up in the nearest London sea.
Moreover, it's worth noting that no one knows yet what happened behind the scenes of the shoot. But rumors are already spreading, and the first legal actions and scandalous statements from former participants have been made. Confessions from anonymous participants about the traumatic experiences, torment, and stress staged from the very beginning appeared in a Rolling Stone article.
For example, their statements mention the harsh conditions during the shooting of the "Red Light, Green Light" competition – the one where a giant mechanical doll decided who among the prize contenders would "get shot" and who would reach the finish line. Nine hours in a frozen airport hangar with no opportunity to move for 30 minutes turned out to be real torture. The essence of the competition was that participants moved to the finish at strictly allocated time intervals, and the rest of the time had to stand still. Despite thermal suits, many passed out from the cold, tension, and fatigue.
However, the most challenging part was not even the prospect of catching pneumonia but the realization that many players were doomed from the very beginning, and the competitions were pre-fabricated. Players claim that key roles were assigned in advance – producers bet on well-known influencers, Instagram, and TikTok stars who were pre-selected to advance to the later rounds of the game. "In reality, it wasn't a game show but a meticulously staged TV show where we were just extras," says one of the former players.
Another player reveals that in most participants who were eliminated, even the microphones supposed to capture their lines and emotions were props. Because everything was predetermined – this round none of them will pass. Producers "resurrected" the participants they needed who were eliminated, and unnecessary ones were "killed" even after successfully completing the round.
The creators of the show deny both the difficult shooting conditions and anonymous accusations of unfair play. "We took all necessary safety measures, including participant care, and an independent judge supervised each game to ensure its fairness for everyone," says a joint statement from Netflix and Studio Lambert.
Former players also spoke about their experiences and emotions during the shooting, including moral dilemmas they faced. During the shooting of the "Red Light, Green Light" episode, everyone had to stand still, and when weaker players fainted, the rest only struggled with a guilty conscience. When a sum capable of changing your life is at stake, you feel trapped and no longer ready to rush to help others if it leads to your loss, as told by one of the anonymous participants. "This is a social experiment playing on our morality. And it's absolutely disgusting," says one of the players.
"The funniest thing is that equality and justice were the main themes of the original 'Squid Game' series," adds another participant.
Well, on one hand, it can be concluded that for the sake of high ratings, showmen are still willing to resort to cheating tricks and manipulation, exploiting humanity's eternal passion for instant wealth. But on the other hand, humanity (at least publicly and legally) is still not ready to cross the line between ordinary entertainment and a brutal gladiatorial meat grinder. So, "The Hunger Games" are not yet threatening us, unless, of course, fanatical Russians decide to impose a food blockade not only in the Black Sea but also in all the world's oceans.