With subscribers currently jumping ship by the bucketload, Netflix finds itself in a fight for its life. To turn the ship around it has to line up all its biggest guns and fire them at once, to show that it has the intellectual property to compete with its rivals. One of the biggest guns that Netflix has at its disposal is Squid Game, the South Korean drama that managed to enthral the entire world last year. But there is a problem.
Squid Game was released nine months ago. It took 12 years to make. A second season has been announced but, since it essentially has to be rebuilt from scratch, it is probably another two years away. And given how the last season ended, any new episodes are likely to be radically different from anything we’ve already seen. Success isn’t guaranteed, in other words.
So how can Netflix maximise our love for the fun, violent Squid Game of old, despite all this uncertainty? That’s easy. It’s making Squid Game for real.
Yesterday Netflix announced what it billed as the biggest reality show in the history of television. Squid Game: The Challenge will be a 10-part gameshow where 456 competitors from around the world will gather together for a chance to win $4.56m. You can expect all the classic Squid Game iconography to be present and correct. The masks. The dormitory. The giant perspex pig full of money. The creepy doll that kills people by the dozen in the most harrowing way imaginable.
Obviously that last one isn’t going to happen because, as much as Netflix needs new subscribers, it still isn’t allowed to murder people for sport. And this is the big grey area of Squid Game: The Challenge. The whole point of Squid Game is that the prize money was an afterthought. As soon as the very first person got shot, the competitors realised that this was a fight for survival. One wrong move and they knew they would face certain death. The stakes were as high as they could possibly be.
But this is a gameshow. Netflix has already stated that “the worst fate is going home empty-handed”, which removes pretty much every single ounce of jeopardy from the proceedings. Without the lingering spectre of death, the games – which involve tug of war and scratching a pin against some honeycomb multiple times – have the potential to be staggeringly anticlimactic. You may as well be watching them play Pin the Tail on the Donkey at a village fete.
And yet, I hold out hope. The worst-case scenario is that Squid Game: The Challenge just becomes a kind of Squid Game Secret Cinema, full of the sort of gurning berks who go to any Secret Cinema. But I remain optimistic. If nothing else, this new reality show might actually get around to explaining the rules of the actual Squid Game itself; the final challenge where you have to draw a triangle on the ground and then impenetrably run around it for some reason until one of you dies of boredom. If the show can explain the mechanics of this game in a way that the actual series couldn’t, it’ll be worth the investment alone.
Also, I love that this is how Netflix plans to bulk out its IP. If a show is popular, it gets to jump genres and become something else. This opens up a world of potential that I can’t wait to see. Maybe we’ll get Stranger Things: The Challenge, where contestants have to solve spooky mysteries while wearing unflattering period wigs. Maybe they’ll make a gameshow of that Black Mirror episode where the terrified screaming woman is chased across the countryside by one of those relentless Boston Dynamics robotic murder dogs. Maybe they’ll make a show based on Inventing Anna, where contestants are awarded cash for completing the arduous task of watching all of Inventing Anna.
Or maybe let’s flip it. If a drama series like Squid Game can be turned into a gameshow, then maybe Netflix’s gameshows can become prestigious scripted drama series. Imagine a show based on Floor is Lava, set in a grim dystopia where the floor actually is lava. Or even better, an urgent, expensive 24-style thriller based on Is It Cake, where a clench-jawed Jack Bauer type played by Matt Damon has to save the world by determining whether a shoe is a shoe or some cake. If anything can save Netflix, it will be this.