Why Squid Game the gameshow has trapped me with its tentacles – I can’t tear myself away

<span>Photograph: Courtesy of Netflix</span>
Photograph: Courtesy of Netflix

My first instinct was to avoid the TV show Squid Game: The Challenge, for highly pleasing reasons of self-righteous disdain. The original Squid Game, a nine-episode drama created by Hwang Dong-hyuk that launched on Netflix in 2021, became a sensation for its inventive brutality, heart-stopping drama and what must be referred to at all times as its searing indictment of capitalism.

Turning a show in which contestants are murdered if they lose a game into an actual reality show (minus the murder) is a bit like reviving the world of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, in which a bunch of food insecure people are invited to wear themselves out for our viewing pleasure. No, thank you!

Well, anyway; I watched the first episode, became instantly hooked, ploughed through a further seven episodes in two days and am now convinced it’s the best TV of the year. And while I have a range of this-is-why-it’s-OK justifications, it’s worth pointing out that Squid Game: The Challenge is, at some level, simply a pitch-perfect production. The casting is superb, heavily skewed towards Americans, with a few comedy Britons and one weird Australian. It is very diverse, with the sort of characters you don’t tend to see on more conventional reality shows – that is, people who give the impression of being driven by something other than wanting to be on TV (I’ll return to that). And the quality of the production, filmed on soundstages in London and Bedford using replicas of the drama’s sets, makes it visually stunning.

The main thing about Squid Game: The Challenge, however, is that it shunts the reality genre into a new and more sophisticated era. In some ways, the show is less exploitative than more basic examples of the format. I remember years ago, Simon Cowell saying that the shark-jumping moment during auditions for American Idol came when a man ran out on stage and announced, beaming, “I’ve got cancer!” Even the dimmest consumer of reality shows these days understands not only that backstory is all, but that the narrative arc through which successful – or disastrous – contestants are pushed is so massaged as to kill any real drama.

Related: The Guide #113: Could the Squid Game spinoff usher in a new era of big money gameshows?

Squid Game, in contrast, handles its material with a much lighter hand. We don’t see the contestants in their homes; we don’t meet their families; we don’t hear their tragic or inspiring stories ahead of time. Instead, we are plunged, immersively, into the world of the game, where there are no clocks, no visible cameras or crew, no sense at all that this reality is being stage-managed for TV. Information about the contestants comes out in brief addresses they make to camera in a side room. But those reveals – presented as monologues, with no member of the production team visible – only come about as a result of the action. That is: the drama is character-led, and the study of these particular characters, who have been very cannily chosen, creates the appetite for finding out who they are.

As a result, not only does the show deliver emotion and suspense at the level of drama, but it tricks you into making early (and quite revealing) judgments about contestants, based entirely on how they speak or look. The sheer demands of the game, meanwhile, eliminates the self-consciousness that has killed so many other shows in the reality TV world. Squid Game sits at the opposite end of the scale to something like Bake Off, but benefits from a similar sense of purpose in the contestants that appears separate from a desire for fame. There is both something quite pure in this – one gets the feeling that some contestants are driven purely by the excitement of the challenge before them – and also, obviously, a measure of something much more unwholesome.

The prize money in Squid Game: The Challenge is a frankly unbelievable $4.56m (£3.55m), which works out at $10,000 for each of the original 456 contestants. A prize this large has clearly, encouraged people to apply who wouldn’t in other circumstances volunteer for a reality show, which makes for better telly. It also means that there are people on the show who are desperate for money – one guy says he dropped out of college to take part and try to dig his family out of poverty – and that desperation is part of the drama. No one is being sneered at or humiliated; it’s not Britain’s Got Talent. Still.

What saves it, I think, is the complexity of the game; a borrowed sense of purpose that comes from the original show, and a sort of level playing field with the people watching. We as the audience are in there with them, trying to figure out how we’d do in their place. “You would die and I would survive,” said my friend Mika to her wife, Tiff, when the original show ran. “You’d be useful in the tug of war, except you’d be dead by then. You’d have been out in Red Light, Green Light.” This conversation, which picked up where it left off when the new show aired, has resulted in Mika, a high school teacher who in a million years wouldn’t have thought of herself as reality show fodder, half resolving to apply if it goes to a second season (a hundred bucks says she wins) in what seems to me the proof of unusually powerful TV.

  • Emma Brocke is a Guardian columnist