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Squid Game: The Challenge review – the most gripping reality TV since The Traitors | Television

I was sceptical as to whether Squid Game, the smash-hit Korean thriller about a fight to the death involving children’s games, could work as a real-life TV show. Early reports suggested that some players were having a miserable time; the producers and Netflix issued a firm denial. But there were many practical reasons to doubt it, and not just the obvious tricky issue of lethal peril. In essence, it is about people playing marbles and punching a shape out of a crispy piece of honeycomb with a needle. Neither immediately suggest compelling television. Yet Squid Game: The Challenge not only works, but may turn out to be the most gripping reality TV since The Traitors.

It is big, in all senses. It begins with 456 contestants, mostly from the US and Europe, and the prize pot will reach $4.56m. Quizshows tend to have a huge prize fund when that big money is largely unobtainable; here, we are told that somebody will actually win that amount, which is absurd. It makes a virtue of its grandiosity. Like its parent show, it ladles on the operatic soundtrack and slow-motion shots. It is an unapologetic spectacle. As the episodes progress, the contestants start to take it all wonderfully seriously, which only adds to the preposterousness.

For the fans of the original show, there will be plenty of question marks over what will and won’t work. It answers each of them with ease. The first episode, unsurprisingly, kicks things off with the memorable Red Light, Green Light, in which players have to make their way to a finish line, freezing when the giant doll trains her laser eyes on them, trying to spot a stumble. I won’t spoil things by saying precisely how they solve the problem of the “elimination”, but it embraces the ridiculousness, and it is just shocking enough, and so silly as to be funny, most of the time. The contestants who give it the full am-dram deserve extra respect, even if it is at the cost of the prize money.

Another issue is how to get the audience to care about so many players. It dispenses with a lot of them early on, adding $10,000 to the prize fund for every poor “eliminated” soul. But it has been well cast, with a decent amount of variety, and it homes in on characters and storylines with precision. Everyone goes in with a gameplan – I haven’t spotted an “I’m not here to make friends” yet, though there is a “nice guys finish last” – but under pressure, these strategies go haywire very quickly. It is put together so well that by the middle of episode one, I am already shouting at the screen about tactics.

Squid Game the drama is, of course, a satire: a critique of capitalism that could undermine the notion of real people ruthlessly competing to win loads of cash. In this respect, it is a little sneaky, though read this as you wish: either it’s making a point under the radar, or it’s having its cake and eating it. It is careful to showcase people’s reasons for competing, almost all of which are ordinary and sweet. Everyone wants to pay off their car, or support their parents, or support their kids. They want a decent life, and the fact that a decent life appears out of reach, and that achieving basic security requires playing musical statues with a deadly doll on TV, is damning, if quietly so.

As well as the familiar games, which are executed well, there are several new elements and challenges that put meat on its bones. There is a strong undercurrent of “social experiment”, too, particularly when it focuses on “alliances” and what happens during downtime in the dorms. It is deliciously twisty. Whether it ultimately will show human nature at its best or worst remains to be seen, but the first batch of episodes to drop certainly suggest that nobody has been scrubbing up on their Communist Manifesto recently.

This is sports day, it’s vintage Big Brother, it’s The Traitors, the Stanford prison experiment; it’s one of those funhouses on lorries that you get at the local fair. It was reasonable to assume that Squid Game: The Challenge would be a cash-in, a cynical by-product of the original’s success that would miss the point entirely, and perhaps it does. But as a gameshow, as the spectacle it sets out to be, it is very hard to look away.

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Squid Game: The Challenge is on Netflix from 22 November.

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