Netflix is in the anti-Netflix business (a sort-of review of Squid Game: The Challenge)

(deutsche Version hier)

This is machine-translated and then very lightly edited. There will be some clunkiness.

I don’t think any company has ever presented a Torment Nexus quite as shamelessly as Netflix has with its adaptation of Squid Game as a reality/gameshow. The term, for those less chronically online, is a reference to this tweet by author/game designer Alex Blechman:

Sci-Fi Author: In my book I invented the Torment Nexus as a cautionary tale

Tech Company: At long last, we have created the Torment Nexus from classic sci-fi novel Don’t Create The Torment Nexus

The tweet is quoted whenever some tech CEO — not always, but often enough Elon Musk — announces some new idea suspiciously reminiscent of technology in dystopian science fiction. Usually, though, there’s still a little bit of distance between fiction and reality — the latest excesses of AI hype, or Elon Musk’s plans to implant chips in people’s brains, or surveillance technology disguised as »smart home assistants« or door cameras, or whatever else, are reminiscent of dystopian sci-fi technology, they may be inspired by it, but they’re not exactly modeled on it.

Squid Game: The Challenge, however, goes one step further: Netflix has explicitly tried to transfer the dystopian-allegorical game show from Squid Game into reality 1-to-1. Or, well, as close to »1-to-1« as you can get: of course, losers aren’t actually shot in the reality version. But an ink capsule in their shirts bursts and they have to perform a dramatic death and remain »dead« until the end of the respective game, so while they may not die, at least their dignity does.

It is remarkable how little the reality version deviates from the fictional series: not only do the set design and staging try to copy the look and feel of the original as closely as possible, not only are almost all1 games taken from the series, but through clever construction of the games and borderline deceptive editing tricks, an attempt is made to match the internal »story-arc« of the games as closely as possible to that of the series. As in the fictional series, for example, the contestants are tricked into forming pairs before the game »Marbles«, only to find out that they have to compete against their partner. The hook of the game, as in the fictional series, is for the contestants to overcome their moral scruples about competing against friends or, in one case, their own mother.

This meticulous imitation of fiction actively makes the game show more boring. Every opportunity for subversion is missed, there are no surprises for those familiar with the series. At times, the whole thing has the vibe of an amateur theater production of Squid Game, and I regularly asked myself why I should watch it when the version with »professionals« exists. The game show offers me little as a reward for trying to forget the unacknowledged but hard-to-ignore aftertaste brought by the fact that an allegory conceived as an anti-capitalist satire has been adapted as a real reality show in which real people play for sums of real money that could significantly improve their real lives in real capitalism. It doesn’t just make you wonder why exactly you should keep watching, but also, as some viewers on social media expressed, whether Netflix missed the point of their own show?

One feature of the capitalism »without alternatives« that Mark Fisher describes in Capitalist Realism is that it appropriates even anti-capitalist ideas. »Far from undermining capitalist realism, this gestural anti-capitalism actually reinforces it«, writes Fisher in reference to films like Pixar’s Wall-E, which depicts the humanity of the future as obese, mindless consuming-machines:

It seems that the cinema audience is itself the object of this satire, which prompted some right wing observers to recoil in disgust, condemning Disney/Pixar for attacking its own audience. But this kind of irony feeds rather than challenges capitalist realism. A film like Wall-E exemplifies what Robert Pfaller has called interpassivity’: the film performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity. The role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does, but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief.

This idea of the audience itself becoming the target of satire is taken up by Alexis Nedd in her review of Squid Game: The Challenge in Indiewire:

Whether or not this show is good” could not be further from the point (or further from its own concern). This is a grudging ovation for the ability of Squid Game: The Challenge” to exist as a reality competition show that hates each of its competitors and its audience in equal measure and doesn’t even try to hide that contempt…presumably, and this is just one interpretation of the vibe, because we’re naughty little piggies and they wanna make us squeal.

From this perspective, the »bugs« of Squid Game: The Challenge are actually features: The unpleasant aftertaste that the perversion of anti-capitalist art brings with it, the feeling that we are being sold something a second time as an inferior, boring copy — all of this further implicates the audience and only makes the criticism of us harsher.

This reading tracks — and suits Netflix. Even in the reality genre, not exactly known for its humanity, Squid Game: The Challenge’s treatment of its contestants often stands out as particularly cold-hearted: We learn how much winning the money would change contestants’ lives moments before they are eliminated; contestants are exposed to ridicule for the drama, such as a contestant in the game »Red Light, Green Light« who apparently cannot manage to hold still for a few seconds and gives up in tears (in reality — according to descriptions by contestants on TikTok — shooting this game did not take 5 minutes, as it is presented, but several hours, which makes the contestant’s giving up more understandable); and of course there is the staging of the elimination, with the ink capsule and the »dying« and the compulsion to remain motionless for the rest of the respective game (i.e., see above, probably several hours) — even when there is nothing in it for them anymore contestants aren’t really allowed to withdraw from the game, but basically have to continue working for the production.

Netflix allows itself this particular cold-heartedness not because they misunderstood Squid Game, but precisely because they understood it. As Fisher explains:

So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange.[…] [W]e are able to fetishize money in our actions only because we have already taken an ironic distance towards money in our heads.

This perhaps explains why even viewers who know and understand the original watch Squid Game: The Challenge with a reasonably clear conscience. But it also illustrates the position from which Netflix produced this show: out of the certainty of being invulnerable. If it weren’t for the original Squid Game, Squid Game: The Challenge would be just another reality show, one that is somehow both needlessly cruel and frankly pretty boring one. The context of the original series, however, allows for readings like Nedd’s, according to which every flaw of the show really just sharpens the satire. And, yes, technically speaking it also exposes Squid Game: The Challenge and Netflix to criticism — Torment Nexus and all that — but what does Netflix have to fear when it has long since formulated the harshest possible criticism itself, in the form of the original series? At worst, Squid Game: The Challenge just confirms the relevance of the original Squid Game, so at the very least it’s good PR for Netflix’s content.

Netflix has realized that the smartest way to deal with criticism of them, their business model and the capitalist logic behind it is to integrate this criticism itself into the business model. The synergy of Squid Game and Squid Game: The Challenge is just the latest example of this: A dystopian Netflix stand-in called »Streamberry« also plays a role in two episodes of the latest season of Black Mirror. Black Mirror author Charlie Brooker explained:

They went away and came back quite quickly - weirdly quickly - and said, Yeah, okay.’ There wasn’t any resistance to it, that I could tell. Which is a bit disappointing, because it would be good to be able to say I just did it anyway, because I’m an anarchist! But no.

But it really isn’t »weird« that Netflix accepted the idea: they simply recognized the marketing potential. They published a »real« Streamberry website, let users create »accounts« there and used the photos they collected from it in marketing material.

And with Blockbuster, Netflix produced a heartwarming workplace sitcom about the last Blockbuster video store, a chain that was displaced by Netflix and their streaming model. I honestly find it hard to believe that anyone would have really thought Blockbuster was a good idea for a show, something that real people would actually watch — I wouldn’t be surprised if this show had been produced exclusively for the PR stunt, precisely for media to emphasize the irony of this show’s existence and thus generate attention for Netflix.2

So, no: The decisions that led to the production of Squid Game: The Challenge and Blockbusters and Black Mirror’s »Streamberry« are not weird and are not the decisions of a company that doesn’t understand the criticisms of its business model (and the system in which that model exists). They are the decisions of a company that understands such criticisms so well that it can reproduce them, repackage them, and sell them back to us. A company that considers its model, not unjustifiably, to be largely without alternatives and knows that this lack of alternatives is ultimately just a gap in the market.

Oh, hey: Thank you for reading! I’m experimenting with translating some of my writing to English, and I might do some original English writing in the future. You can subscribe to my English-language writing via RSS or email:

  1. One exception is the finale, which is not, as in the series, the titular Squid Game”, but Rock, Paper, Scissors”. However, this is to be understood more as a kind of translation” than as a subversion: While the fictional series was produced in South Korea, the reality adaptation is a British production, and has international contestants. Rock, Paper, Scissors” is internationally better known, simpler and more readable for the international audience, but the effect is similar: a schoolyard game becomes the all-decisive duel that determines the future lives of the candidates.↩︎

  2. Netflix is not alone: the Apple TV+ series Severance is not a satire about streaming, but one about tech companies and modern work, and it is no coincidence that the aesthetics of the offices of the fictional company in the series are reminiscent of the design language of Apple stores and products.↩︎

December 11, 2023