‘Squid Game: The Challenge’ transforms the dystopian drama into an oversized ‘Big Brother’

The eerie drama takes on a new dimension in “Squid Game: The Challenge,” debuting on Netflix.

Simply creating a reality-competition show based on “Squid Game” sends a signal that the essence of “Squid Game” may not be fully grasped. However, Netflix’s expansive adaptation of the South Korean series, titled “Squid Game: The Challenge,” logically evolves the concept into a super-sized “Big Brother,” capturing the original drama’s aesthetic without replicating its body count, thankfully.

The numbers present an impressive spectacle, featuring 456 contestants competing for a record prize of $4.56 million, all-or-nothing for the winner. If this seems like a casting nightmare, it indeed is, and the sheer scale of the endeavor suggests the program will likely need several years to amortize the cost of assembling it, starting with the eerie doll presiding over the game of “Red Light, Green Light.”

The producers attempt to humanize the players by interspersing up-close-and-personal interviews throughout the festivities. This creates expectations, occasionally subverting them, about what unfolds next. The eclectic cast ranges from a mother-and-son duo to a former football player whose coalition-building tactics and swagger make him a quick target for other participants........

Despite its unique design, including matching numbered sweatsuits and faceless “guards” monitoring the action, “Squid Game: The Challenge” inevitably falls back on the traditional language and tropes of the reality-competition genre, reminiscent of “Survivor” and “Big Brother’s” invasion of the US nearly a quarter-century ago.

In other words, the show involves psychological gamesmanship, strategizing, tears, near-meltdowns, and plenty of bold talk about winning rather than making friends. There’s also an abundance of padding, with the music working overtime to amplify suspense.

The tension is somewhat eased in the early stages by the massive odds against survival – akin to the NCAA basketball tournament times seven. The stakes gradually rise as the herd thins, and the chance of victory becomes clearer. Netflix breaks with tradition by releasing the 10 episodes (five were previewed) over three weeks – their version of March Madness to kick off the holidays.

Contestants in the Netflix reality-competition series “Squid Game The Challenge.”
Netflix
Contestants have clearly studied the series seeking clues or hints to enhance their chances of survival. However, the game can’t replicate the life-or-death aspect, mercifully, which the producers attempt to mimic – and the players oddly imitate – by having individuals dramatically drop to the ground when “shot” with paint pellets as a sign of elimination.

The original 2021 dramatic series, greenlit for a second season, derived allure from its dystopian vision of the intersection of class struggle and reality television, with the poor striving and dying for the amusement of the rich.

While the competition series includes its share of sob stories, and despite cut-throat jockeying and reports of contestants requiring medical attention during filming in the UK, producers manage to toy with contestants for collective amusement without veering into “The Hunger Games” or “The Running Man.”

If “Squid Game: The Challenge” persists long enough to justify the investment in those massive sets, it remains uncertain where the “red light” will be, or how far players will go for the substantial cash prize. Currently, a bit of emotional turmoil and a substantial amount of time-filling are, as they say, just part of playing the game.

“Squid Game: The Challenge” premieres on November 22 on Netflix.