‘Squid Game: The Challenge’ Producers Share the Thrills, Chills and Backlash Behind Netflix’s Most Popular Reality Series

Just as Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Emmy-winning series “Squid Game” captivated audiences and became Netflix’s No. 1 show in 2021, its spin-off reality competition series, “Squid Game: The Challenge,” sent viewers right back to the edge of their seats. In this version, exec-produced by Tim Harcourt and Nicola Brown, 456 players from around the world compete for $4.56 million through nonlethal renditions of some of the original’s most notorious challenges, including Red Light Green Light, one-on-one marbles and hopscotching across a glass bridge.

Critical reception was mixed and some players complained of inhumane working conditions during the 17-day production in Britain, but viewers showed up en masse: The Challenge racked up 224 million total hours watched in the first 21 days following its debut last November. To date, the Netflix reality show is still the platform’s most-watched series of all-time, based on total house viewed in its first 28 days.

Executive producers Tim Harcourt and Nicola Brown opened up to TheWrap about what it took to make the iconic competition series.

What made you think you should do a real-life “Squid Game”?

TIM HARCOURT Everyone who works in reality or unscripted TV watched Squid Game and must have thought this would make such an incredible reality competition series. Netflix, with that incredible piece of IP that proved so popular around the world, had that very same idea and came to us at Studio Lambert and to Nic at the Garden [production company] and said, “It’s a big show. Why don’t you guys work together? You’ve got lots of great ideas.” We jumped at that opportunity to be involved in probably the biggest competition reality show ever.

The games are a big part of the show, but some from the original series wouldn’t work for a real-life competition series. How did you decide which ones to keep and when you’d have to create new ones?

NICOLA BROWN It’s sort of like going to see your favorite band playing. There’s an expectation that you’re going to get some of the hits, if not all of the hits. And for us, it was about inviting an audience who are familiar with the show and who loved the drama into a world where they can experience elements of the drama for real—the games, but also something new, fresh and surprising. So we needed new games, like “Circle of Trust” and “Jack in the Box,” and also the twists that happened in the [players’] dorm.

HARCOURT Some of the [original] games weren’t possible to do. We looked into doing Tug of War, and retrospectively we have figured out a way to do it, but a lot of those games fit within a scripted world and serve the characters in those moments. But when you play the games for real, they’re often just games of skill and luck. We wanted some new games that would allow us to key into some of the characters and moral decisions. Would you send one of your fellow competitors packing to advance yourself? Who would you remove if given the chance to get rid of somebody? More moral games focused on strategy as well as those incredible, spectacular games. That blend was essential.

BROWNI think the telling moments were when you began to see people under pressure and struggling with the decisions they made. One of the major challenges was being able to create a world where you see people wrestling with this whole concept of how you play is who you are, and what would I do in that scenario?

Did either of you ever have any reservations about making “Squid Game” into a competition series?

HARCOURT We were aware that some people were going to say, “Oh, you’re missing the point,” because one of the aspects of Squid Game is this critique of entertainment and consumerism. But that’s not the only thing that “Squid Game” was about. It was about triumphing over adversity, it was about friendship, it was about camaraderie.

There was controversy surrounding the show. Some contestants claimed they were injured and suffered nerve damage and hypothermia while shooting Red Light Green Light in an unheated hangar. What’s your response to that?

HARCOURT Health and safety are paramount for us. The hypothermia allegation… Everyone who got through that, none of those people complained. Some people were very disappointed not to get through [that challenge]. And it got cold. We hear them, but they were aware [of the conditions from the beginning]. Everything is tested to be safe. Health and safety is something we applied to everything we do on that show.

Did you have a favorite moment or challenge?

BROWN My all-time favorite was the moment of realization when [the players are] having this lovely picnic, they sit down with their favorite person, they’re opening up the baskets, they’re so excited to get orange juice, candy, chips and all of that. And then, as they find the marbles in the bottom, it dawns on them what’s happening and that these bonds that they’ve made are about to be broken apart.

This story first appeared in the Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Hoa Xuande The Sympathizer cover
Hoa Xuande photographed by Elizabeth Weinberg for TheWrap

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