The first line of Netflix’s new Squid Game: The Challenge—a game show spun off from the platform’s all-time hit, Squid Game—is that being on the show feels “like Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory”. Despite this being more about getting a “Golden Ticket” opportunity to change their life—456 people competing for a massive purse of $4.56 million (around ₹38 crore)—this initially struck me as an odd analogy, considering the original Squid Game was a bloodbath, but then again, what did Roald Dahl’s mysterious Willy Wonka really manufacture? Sure, there was chocolate, but it was also a sweatshop where gluttonous children were savagely murdered.
There is no death this time.
Squid Game: The Challenge painstakingly recreates the colourful LEGO-box aesthetic of the original and leans heavily on its discordant music score, and as players face the intense challenges, they get “eliminated”—signalled by a squib, a black-ink cartridge going off inside their shirts—from which point they lie down and play dead. “Best slumber party ever,” says a player on entering a huge bunkbed-filled dormitory, having survived “Red Light, Green Light”, the first game featuring that nightmarish doll from the original show.
Written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, the sensationally successful Squid Game was a satire where wretched, down on their luck people—most of them crippled by debt—were made to play savage versions of children’s games, all for the amusement of a few millionaires in animal masks. The show was about naked exploitation, and the fact that this massacre proved irresistible enough to be Netflix’s most viewed series gave us a glimpse in the mirror at our own voyeuristic, bloodthirsty faces.
While The Challenge doesn’t actually kill people (yet, that is; let’s wait and see what Netflix does after a few earnings calls), it does successfully make these proceedings feel like life and death, simply by making the prize money life-alteringly massive: $4.5 million is enough to change any contestant’s trajectory, and being robbed of the chance to compete for it, sometimes arbitrarily, may feel like murder. Playing dead feels loaded in that isolated, surreal, TV-show-come-alive world. “It’s like a casino,” says one contestant wisely, “There is no sense of time in here.”
There is, instead, a sense of money. Looming over their dormitories at all times is a giant transparent piggy bank filled with millions. As each contestant gets eliminated, $10,000 more drops into the piggy bank. It’s an obscene amount of money, and while the first contestants applaud each culling gleefully, glad to have stuck around and see their prize money grow, the pressure gets more intense. “My loyalty is to the piggy,” announces a participant, but as friends start being voted out and losing their in-game lives, eventually nobody claps at the new banknotes. They know they are lucky to be around.
That’s where Squid Game: The Challenge truly scores. Through a combination of keeping players in the dark and plot twists regarding gameplay, participants (and viewers) are constantly left hanging in the balance. Do you step up and be a leader or slink in the shadows, away from everyone’s radar? One is voted out because he has taken charge too much, one because she has not spoken to many people. Everyone is precariously poised. Everyone is on the brink.
It’s a fine mix of players. There is a mother, a retired New York Times editor, who has come to play along with her son—one of the few (seemingly) unimpeachable bonds in a world of fickle and impulsive strategic alliances. There is a finance guy who steals extra meals and is often condescending, but in his group interview, he’s wearing a crocheted dress and carrying a purse with sunflowers. In the game, however, they all wear identical green tracksuits, like prisoners—or backup dancers in a Wes Anderson music video. Stripped of personality.
There are “The Bros”, a group of men who appear to communicate through push-up reps, and “The Gganbu Gang”, led by a 69-year-old grandfather who wants to help someone else win the big prize. Two young men bond over their mullet hairdos. There are touching friendships here, as well as those that appear immediately fake, the heightened stakes making everything seem vital. “I trust him with my life at this point,” one contestant says about someone who has helped him in a challenge—by guessing a square in a game of Battleships. A former pro-basketball player says guiding a team to victory in a challenge felt “almost” like winning a championship.
This is very, very sticky television—and I don’t just mean because several minutes are spent watching players breathlessly licking caramel circles. I couldn’t stop watching the show, and soon found myself picking favourites, rooting against an obvious villain, thinking about strategy, and that’s when I realised how immediately on board I was with this make-believe exploitation. It’s not as violent but it feels as intense. Win-win, right?
The controversy is obvious. By monetising a show that was itself a satire of monetisation, Netflix is making its subscribers the exploitative bad guys. Yet these players seem to be having a great time during their slumber party, emotionally wrought but obviously make-believe. In the Willy Wonka films—unlike the book—the greedy children are sent back home with lessons learnt and full stomachs. This, too, is like that. An elimination may feel like the end of the world but nobody dies. It’s a squib game.
Sport, of course, doesn’t always have to be life and death. As we lick our wounds having lost the cricket World Cup, I’d recommend the Christmassy cheer of Hannah Waddingham: Home For Christmas (Apple TV+) where the Ted Lasso star hangs out with friends from that feel-good show.
Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series. He posts @rajasen.