‘The Challenge’ is understanding why this ‘Squid Game’ game show was green-lit
It is one thing to extend a successful television series in a way that drains its meaning and dilutes its impact. It is another to drown it in greed and to gleefully embrace what it diagnoses as economically and spiritually catastrophic.
Squid Game, the South Korean drama series that was a sensation on Netflix in September 2021, is a work of despair. In it, hundreds of players who are deeply in debt are invited to participate in a secretive competition with an enormous cash prize for those who successfully complete a series of games. What they don’t realize until the first game is underway is that as they are eliminated from each game, they will be murdered.
The first episode, “Red Light Green Light,” finds 456 people in an enormous open space playing the childhood game in which, if you are caught moving after you’re told to freeze, you are out. But in this case, when you are out, you are shot dead by enormous guns embedded in the walls. Shot in the head, the neck, the back. As the group realizes what’s happening, many panic and run for the exit, but of course, this violates the rules as well, so they are massacred as they try to escape. They end as a pile of dead bodies against the doors, their identical green sweatsuits drenched in blood. Those who survive, owing to their desperate circumstances, eventually play on. How inhuman it is to conduct this game, to have to play it, and especially to watch it, those are the things that give the scene and the series such weight.
At some point, some person, some fool, somewhere, in some office, flush with the success of the series both critically and commercially, decided it would be entertaining to create a game show — a real game show — that imitated this scenario as closely as possible without actually murdering anyone. And so you have Squid Game: The Challenge.
It brings 456 real people to a vast dormitory designed to look as much as possible like the one in the show. And it begins, too, with the game of “Red Light Green Light.” It would have been easy to design The Challenge such that if you are caught moving, your number is called and you are simply out of the game. Had they stopped there, this effort would be empty and pointless, but perhaps only that. Instead, when a player is caught moving, a squib inside their shirt explodes, splattering their chest and neck with black fluid, and they fall over and play dead. It is meant to look as much like a true massacre by gunfire as they could manage, although someone seems to have drawn the line at fake red blood in a meaningless gesture toward, one can only assume, some simulacrum of good taste.
The original Squid Game indicts, above all, anyone who would find such a competition entertaining. The villains are the people who watch, who plan, and who enjoy this spectacle. So what makes The Challenge so creatively misbegotten is that it suggests at best (or worst?) a cynical effort to exploit the most superficial elements of Squid Game while entirely missing its point, and at worst (or best?) an ignorant failure to understand what the show is even supposed to be about. These games are not particularly exciting, in and of themselves. The murders are the story; the brutality is the one thing that makes it compelling. And the only reason the fictional game has been designed by its evil creators is that they want to watch people scramble to save their very lives. The deaths are not a decoration; they are the fabric of the thing.
And so what makes The Challenge so bad is that outside of the simulated killings and their shock value, it’s dull. There are too many contestants to get to know and no central characters to grab onto like the ones in Squid Game.
What makes The Challenge feel wrong is that a competition where the first episode is a whimsical game of “mass shooting and panic,” complete with squibs, complete with splatter, should never have made it past the very first meeting. That nobody said no, that nobody said “there’s an excellent chance that we will be dropping these episodes in the aftermath of a real mass shooting, and simulating one for entertainment will seem like an extraordinary violation of bare-bones decency” is an indictment of everyone involved. Someone — everyone — has lost the plot. (Not to mention what some contestants claim were, in real life, apparently atrocious conditions.)
In a media environment in which creative people manage, against all odds, to do work that is daring and interesting — like Squid Game was — it is brutal to see the same company that drove that work’s success turn around and treat it so carelessly. It’s not the first time Netflix has tried to have its cake and eat it too; recent seasons of Black Mirror that aired on Netflix have skewered formats and practices straight out of the service’s own playbook, to the point where a Netflix clone called Streamberry was one of the primary villains of the sixth season. But at least in that one, as far as we know, nobody got hurt.
This piece also appeared in NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what’s making us happy.
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Jonathan Taylor Thomas Surfaces Publicly for First Time in 2 Years
Kiss performs its final concert. But has the band truly reached the ‘End of the Road’?
In the 50 years since Kiss first kicked and thrashed its way onto the New York rock scene, the band has given the world sing-and-shout-along hits like “Detroit Rock City,” “Crazy Crazy Nights” and “Beth,” and live performances replete with blood-spattering, fire-breathing, pyrotechnics and gobs of cartoonish stage makeup.
“Their schtick lifted them up to the absolute top,” music writer Joel Selvin, the author of numerous books about rock musicians including Linda Ronstadt, the Grateful Dead and Sly and the Family Stone, told NPR.
On Saturday, the memorable stagecraft that made Kiss one of the biggest selling hard rock bands in the world will come to an end, as its members perform what they are touting as their final show of their aptly titled, four-year-long “End of the Road World Tour” — at Madison Square Garden in New York. The concert will be available to watch live on Pay-Per-View.
“It has nothing to do with personalities in the band or tensions or a difference of opinion or musicality. It’s purely practical,” said Kiss co-founder, rhythm guitarist and vocalist Paul Stanley in an interview with the music publication Ultimate Classic Rock of the band’s reasons for bringing five decades of Kiss to an end. “You can play beat the clock, but ultimately the clock wins.”
The city has apparently gone Kiss-crazy in the days leading up to the occasion, with the appearance of Kiss-themed taxis, Metro cards and pizza boxes. On Wednesday, the New York Rangers hosted KISS Game Night, featuring Kiss-related activities and “limited-edition KISS x Rangers merchandise.” Band members also made an appearance at an Empire State Building lighting ceremony on Thursday. Staged in honor of Kiss’ swan song, Empire State emitted the colored lights associated with the band — silver, red, purple, green and blue.
Despite all the hooplah, this may not in fact be Kiss’ goodbye kiss. The band undertook a previous “farewell tour” more than 20 years ago. After a brief hiatus, it started touring again on and off in 2003. Live shows and album releases flowed on from there.
In interviews, band members have spoken about continuing on after Saturday’s Madison Square Garden performance in one way or another. Both Stanley and co-frontman Gene Simmons have their own bands and say they aim at the very least to continue making appearances in those formats.
“Nobody ever really says goodbye,” said rock critic Selvin, citing comebacks over the years by the likes of Cher, Steve Miller and the Grateful Dead. “It’s a show business strategy. You take a bow. But there’s always an encore.”
Selvin said artists often reappear after retiring because they can make a lot of money owing to fans’ pent-up demand. For example, the pop-punk band Blink-182 is earning four times as much on its current reunion tour than it did when it last re-united in 2009, according to Far Out magazine. (The band issued a statement in 2005 saying it was going on “indefinite hiatus,” only to reunite four years later.)
“Personal life interferes, you want to disappear into the woodwork for a while and then demand builds and you go back to it,” Selvin said. “Steve Miller took his band apart in ’99. He was just tired. And he was out for six years. And then in 2005, he put his band back together and suddenly his price was up, and there was more interest in seeing him.”
Meanwhile, some musical acts simply never retire. The Rolling Stones, for instance, are embarking on yet another North America tour in 2024. The band just announced additional dates.
Selvin doesn’t think we’ve heard the last of Kiss.
“The rule of the farewell tour is that you have to say goodbye to every hall, and sometimes you have to say goodbye twice,” Selvin said. “I do not expect this to be the last time that Kiss performs, any more than ‘Fare Thee Well’ was the last time The Grateful Dead performed.”
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