By all rights, Squid Game: The Challenge should be an absolute disaster. The concept is nothing more than a cheap (spiritually cheap, at least) attempt by Netflix to extend the Squid Game brand. It's based on a dystopian thriller in which the losers of the game were shot to death on the spot. The reality series starts with 456 contestants, all competing in a giant warehouse. There were reports of poor treatment of contestants and people needing medical attention during the early days of filming. Even the creator of the original Squid Game said the show was a bad idea, one that set a troubling precedent for turning fictional violence into real-life spectacle. The whole endeavor seemed to exist under a dark cloud.
And yet, through the first eight episodes that Netflix released for critics, Squid Game: The Challenge proves to be an engaging, dynamic, cleverly plotted, and smartly edited reality competition. Whatever deficiencies there were in its production practices — a significant asterisk, to be sure — the on-screen product is more coherent and compelling than it has any right to be.
The first monster hurdle Squid Game: The Challenge clears is how to wrangle 456 competitors into a coherent narrative. Executive producers Stephen Lambert, Tim Harcourt, and Toni Ireland (from Studio Lambert) and John Hay, Nicola Hill, and Nicola Brown (from ITV's The Garden) make the very smart decision to only focus on a few competitors at a time, but to hop to different groups of contestants often. This keeps the audience from feeling like they're only getting a fraction of the story while still keeping the scope of the narrative manageable.
A very select handful of contestants remain in focus throughout every episode, but at the same time, the show doesn’t hold back when it comes to foreshadowing. Just because a player is enjoying a lot of camera time doesn't mean they're safe for the long haul. Squid Game: The Challenge excels in delivering mini-arcs; rivalries happen in short bursts. Alliances are built and torn apart with ruthless unpredictability. The audience has to be on their toes, but you never get lost in the weeds of too many dangling character arcs. (It helps that players are mostly referenced by numbers, which are displayed on their coveralls at all times, rather than names.)
The characters that do get the benefit of narrative focus are decently compelling. There's the mother/son duo of LuAnn (#302) and Trey (#301), who seem to be the only pre-existing relationship in the cast. Bryton (#432) is a cocky college athlete from Clemson who immediately makes himself the center of attention; TJ (#182), a former pro basketball player with an affinity for team leadership. Introvert Spencer (#299) must shoulder the responsibility for a massive team, all while constantly on the verge of throwing up from nerves. Doc (#232) is a grandfather who starts the "Gganbu Gang" alliance, named after an episode of Squid Game. (It’s abundantly clear that all these contestants have watched and internalized the original show, which helps them anticipate the challenges ahead.)
The show doesn’t build character through hard-luck stories or excessive tugging on the audience's heartstrings. Yes, some players have very admirable and altruistic reasons to go for the money, but the production doesn't turn the game into a series of sympathy grabs either.
Perhaps most controversially, the presentation of Squid Game: The Challenge has real panache. Tsk-tsk all you want about making a reality show out of a hyper-violent dystopian horror show, but this set really looks like the original Squid Game, down to the giant mechanical statue for the Red Light/Green Light game, the colorful MC Escher-esque stairs, and the masked guards. And then there are the squibs, a god-level touch that, yes, makes the show more macabre, but also adds a touch of dark whimsy. When players lose and are eliminated from the game, a squib that each player is wearing under their shirt is popped by remote control, releasing a burst of dark liquid, signifying their "death" in the game. Even better, the contestants have all been instructed to drop to the ground when this happens, to enhance the effect. Some people just kind of lower themselves to the ground, while others expire with real theatricality. It's both evocative and campy, and it never gets old.
That said, many of the complaints about contestant safety centered on the show's attempts to replicate Squid Game's visual grandeur. . The giant dormitory was in fact a poorly insulated airplane hangar which got unbearably cold during a UK cold snap. The Red Light, Green Light game, which looked impressively identical to the series premiere of the real Squid Game, was a long shoot that had contestants frozen in place for long intervals.
There isn't zero guilt when it comes to Squid Game: The Challenge. While no one was seriously injured during the production, you don't want to reward a production for being reckless or even merely unprepared when it comes to contestant safety. But from a pure end-user perspective, this show is a hoot. The episodes build to moments of real tension, both because of the games being played and also the smaller alliances and betrayals among the contestants. "Strategy" comes in fits and starts with a game this big and unpredictable, but as the numbers get winnowed down, that element of the game begins to ramp up. The first five episodes are some of the most taut reality TV this year, and this is the phase of the game that should feel the most bloated. That's a very encouraging sign for the rest of the season.
New episodes of Squid Game: The Challenge drop Wednesdays on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.