It all came down to rock, paper, scissors on Wednesday night’s finale of “Squid Game: The Challenge.” After many rounds of trying to deduce her opponent’s next move, Mai Whelan (Player 287), an immigration adjudicator, grandmother and Navy veteran from Virginia who came to the United States as an 8-year-old refugee from Vietnam, triumphed over Phill Cain (Player 451), a scuba instructor from Hawaii — and 454 other players.
Her prize: a staggering $4.56 million. “Anything is possible,” she said after her win. “Even when you feel down and afraid, you have to pick yourself up, be a strong person and focus.”
“The Challenge,” a reality competition show, is based on Netflix’s dystopian, blood-drenched South Korean blockbuster drama “Squid Game,” in which contestants play schoolyard games for the chance to win an exorbitant cash prize. On the original series, however, the hundreds who lose die gruesome deaths. On “The Challenge,” filmed on a set in England, no one died, of course; they only pretended to.
And like on the drama, they made alliances, broke alliances, back stabbed, shot daggers with their eyes, and wept and wept. They also played a few games from the original, including the glass bridge challenge (no, the players didn’t free fall), the marbles face-off and the dalgona candy game (which, in real life, involved copious saliva).
On Wednesday, Netflix announced that the highly popular show was renewed for second season; Season 2 of the drama is also in the works. Also on Wednesday, a Netflix live fan experience, Squid Game: The Trials, opened on the “Price Is Right” soundstage in Los Angeles.
As for the televised competition, it required some mental gymnastics, and was alternately disappointing and delicious. Here’s what the competition got right, and what may have left some viewers underwhelmed or unsettled.
The Fake Deaths
The game show does a commendable, if creepy, job at mimicking the drama visually: The players live in a stark warehouse turned dorm; they wear matching green-and-white tracksuits emblazoned with their assigned number; a huge piggy bank filled with cash descends from the ceiling, and as players get knocked out, more bundles of money drop into it.
In the premiere, the hundreds of contestants play red light, green light as Young-hee, a giant animatronic doll, gives the orders (in fact, her components were created by the largest 3-D printer in the United Kingdom, which was left running for a month).
But the choice to ask contestants to pretend to die when they are eliminated — a squib of black ink pops under their shirts — was both unnerving and somewhat lame: Unnerving because evoking images of mass death is questionable at best. Lame because it seems that players were asked to take the task very seriously, and most simply closed their eyes and slumped over. If they’re already being splattered with ink, why not introduce a little camp, theatricality or humor? It’s a game show, after all.
All English-Speaking Players
The original show was South Korean — in location, language and casting. But aside from Young-hee blaring a song in Korean from her speakers, you’d never know it. Choosing to take the easy route and cast only English speakers seems both dismissive of the original and a logistical cop-out.
Feel Good or Feel Ick?
Most such competitions take the opportunity to tug on viewers’ heartstrings by imploring contestants to share personal tales of woe and strife, but “The Challenge” pushed things to an uncomfortable degree in casting the show as a financial lifeline.
The first player we hear speak in the series, Starla (Player 318), a probation officer, says, “Who’s not in debt? We’re facing a recession.” She asks, “What’s that like to be able to pay off your house? What’s that like to be able to pay off your car? I know these may be simple dreams, but what’s that like?” (Moments later, in the very first challenge, her squib bursts, ending her run.)
It Missed the Entire Point
On that note, what happens when you take a satire on greed, wealth inequality, class stratification and unjust economic systems — and then extract the reason for its existence? You get “Squid Game: The Challenge.” No matter how ubiquitous the original “Squid Game” has become in pop culture, the story it tells is bleak, horrifying, disturbing and strange. As The New York Times’s TV critic, James Poniewozik, put it: “The show had something to say and said it with style.” The game show? All style, little substance.
Of All the Games … Rock, Paper, Scissors?
The game show scuttled some challenges from the original show (like tug of war, which the producers said was ditched in order to keep the spinoff surprising). But why did they cut the game of Squid? It’s a real children’s game that is popular in South Korea and was used in the finale of the drama. It involves jockeying for a position within a diagram usually drawn in sand; it’s the origin for the square, circle and triangle motif seen throughout both shows. Perhaps it would be considered unfair because it favors physical strength and balance. OK, fine.
Then why not save ddakji, which involves slamming and flipping paper cards on the ground (similar to the American game milk caps), for the finale? Instead, ddakji was played for dramatic effect earlier in the season — pitting two men who had forged a sweet bond against each other, making one of them briefly believe he’d been eliminated by his friend.
More ‘Tests of Character’
Putting the dull final test aside, “The Challenge” did introduce some entertaining new games, helping to give it a bit of its own identity and blunt some of the grisly memories for those who watched the drama. (In fact, not every game from the original made sense in “The Challenge”: the marbles match, for example, turned out to be quite boring without the specter of death hanging over it.)
Most of the new games involved what the producers called “tests of character,” which required players to make difficult choices, such as eliminate, deceive or bolster other players — often with the risk of elimination themselves. “The drama is all about the alliances and groups people form,” Stephen Lambert, an executive producer, told The Times. “We needed to find ways to create challenges for people that would play to their sense of loyalty and sense of trust.”
Solid Group Dynamics
That plan worked. Anyone who’s watched strategy-based reality competition shows like “Survivor,” “Big Brother” or “The Circle” has learned that tactics are everything if you want to survive, and that loyalty is fleeting. Also anyone who’s watched these shows has probably gotten bored watching a group of strangers mill around doing not much a lot of the time. “The Challenge” walked this line successfully — giving viewers plenty of alliances to invest in or to loathe, while still focusing on the action.
Team Mai or Team Ashley?
In the eighth episode, Ashley Tolbert (Player 278) refused to step ahead of Trey Plutnicki (Player 301) during the glass bridge challenge, which would have essentially leveled the playing field, giving each player a 50/50 chance of survival. She was the only player to reject the approach, and her decision sent Trey to his doom. “I’m confused as hell because I don’t remember agreeing to this,” Ashley said. The choice did not sit well with Mai, who later in the episode put Ashley up for elimination in a dice game, instead of risking herself like the other players had.
Usually in reality shows, the villain is cast quite clearly, but in “The Challenge,” viewers seem to have perceived these same events — and these two players’ choices and, in turn, their character — very differently (as did the other competitors). The question: What exactly makes a team player when only one will win? The saga created a memorable rift that, if anything, should be one of the biggest conversation starters to come from the season.
Now whether it makes up for pinning the whole fortune on a few rounds of rock, paper, scissors — doubtful.
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