The Squid Game reality show is genuinely good.

When it comes to high-stakes drama, few things rival life or death situations. In Netflix’s acclaimed Korean drama Squid Game, 456 desperate debtors vied for wealth — with all but one meeting their demise in the process. So, when the streaming platform announced last year that it would produce a reality TV competition inspired by Hwang Dong-hyuk’s intense survival series — featuring 456 real individuals competing for a $4.56 million prize, the largest in TV history — the response was, at best, doubtful. Without the imminent threat of mortality, can games like marbles and Red Light, Green Light still maintain their intensity?

Squid Game was renowned for its unexpected plot twists, but perhaps the most surprising twist of all is this: With its diverse cast and innovative adaptations from the original, Squid Game: The Challenge delivers genuine suspense and authentic human drama without the need for fatal outcomes for any contestant.

Filmed in England with meticulously recreated sets, Squid Game: The Challenge faithfully captures all the visual elements of the original series: Participants dressed in green and white tracksuits navigate through candy-colored, M.C. Escher-inspired staircases to reach various challenges. These challenges include a suspenseful game of Red Light, Green Light, featuring a menacing replica of the iconic giant robot doll from the series, albeit without any bloodshed. Contestants reside in a stark dormitory equipped with minimalist metal bunk beds, overseen by anonymous “guards” clad in pink jumpsuits and eerie black metal masks. Additionally, after each game, contestants are enticed by a transparent piggy bank that gradually fills with prize money as players are eliminated.

The diverse group of 456 players in the Challenge represents a wide range of ages, races, nationalities, and occupations. While their circumstances may not be as dire as those of the fictional contestants in Squid Game, each player has their own compelling reasons for pursuing the multi-million-dollar jackpot. These reasons include supporting a child with special needs, breaking the cycle of generational poverty, and achieving the dream of retirement.

Indeed, the players do seem to endure some discomfort during the opening challenge, and the living conditions are quite basic. However, it shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone participating in a reality TV competition, especially one inspired by a brutally intense Korean survival drama like Squid Game, where the stakes are life and death for most contestants. Reality show contracts typically outline the potential emotional and physical challenges participants may face, and it’s likely that all contestants on Squid Game: The Challenge signed these agreements willingly. (As a side note, there are 11 mental health professionals credited in the production.)

While the show’s attention to detail is commendable, some efforts to replicate elements from the original series come off as rather absurd. For instance, when players are eliminated, an ink pack under their shirt bursts, creating a paintball-like splatter. While this is a clever homage to how eliminations occur in the scripted drama, the theatricality of having players simulate falling over “dead” when their ink pack bursts may seem unnecessary. Similarly, the inclusion of a “control room” with guards monitoring prop monitors and pushing prop buttons on prop consoles feels excessive. Additionally, filming some confessionals in grim interrogation rooms may be seen as overkill.

These contrived cosmetic embellishments detract from the genuine emotional tension created by the numerous individuals striving for the substantial sum of cash nestled in the piggy bank. Starla, a probation officer (No. 318), poignantly asks, “Who’s not in debt? What’s it like to be able to pay off your house? What’s it like to be able to pay off your car?” While the stakes may not be life or death, they are undeniably real.

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