HOLLYWOOD Road to a Million, reviewed.

Road to a Million, reviewed.

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Reality television is a cynical medium. If you have witnessed the Real Housewives snarl at each other around a table fizzing with champagne flutes, if you have an appetite for a deft Survivor backstabbing at a tribal council, then on paper, nothing about Squid Game: The Challenge should be outside your realm of tolerance. The new Netflix series, which is currently the No. 1 show on the platform, is a spinoff of the ludicrously successful Korean sci-fi drama of the same name. In it, 456 players, dressed in Orwellian green jumpsuits and confined to an austere, white-walled dormitory, attempt to outlast one another in macabre dungeon games. One victor is awarded a fabulous cash prize, while everyone else faces certain death. The show is a thinly veiled allegory about a ghoulish entertainment industry that feeds on desperation—drawing obvious inspiration from the misery that passes through our algorithms every night. You do not need to look far to find people willing to debase themselves on TV for money, and that made Squid Game a winning satire.

The stakes, of course, are considerably lower on The Challenge. Nobody on the show is going to die, nor have they been kidnapped against their will. By hammering down those edges, Netflix intends to flatten Squid Game into a more malleable franchise—holding on to its techno-dystopia aesthetic and imaginative systems of Saw-esque cruelty while totally excising its original raison d’être. It all makes The Challenge a wildly unseemly experience: vain, chintzy, wholly apolitical, ethically bankrupt, and undeniably good reality television. Netflix bet on bad taste—and executed their vision splendidly.

Other, more high-minded reality TV institutions think of themselves as tributes to the human spirit, or they at least attempt to concoct positive emotional responses. The Bachelor and The Bachelorette ask us to believe that those generically good-looking real estate brokers on screen are truly in love with each other, and The Real World’s confession booth is replete with soft-focus interviews conducted by teary 22-year-olds opining about how amazing their experience has been. The Challenge, however, is refreshingly unpretentious about what it intends to accomplish: This is a hateful show for a hateful audience. The vast majority of the contestants competing for the prize are treated with rhapsodic disrespect. In the second episode, in which the producers re-create one of the more nerve-racking Squid Game blood sports—chiseling a specific shape (a circle, a triangle, a star, or if you’re really unlucky, an umbrella) from a piece of brittle honeycomb—one player succumbs to indigestion from the stress. The sound editors at Netflix weave in the humiliating echo of a warbling upset stomach to emphasize his anguish, while the camera remains laser-focused on his buckling esophagus. He is “shot” (read: paintballed) a few seconds later after unwittingly snapping his honeycomb in half. The contestants are asked to keel over as if they’ve been murdered upon elimination, so while the rest of his team continues to work on their little parasols, he lies crumpled in the fetal position—never to be seen again.

If Squid Game treated its eliminations as opportunities to play on the viewer’s heartstrings—a way to build empathy for these hapless individuals locked in this eldritch hell—The Challenge regards them as Three Stooges–like pratfalls. In Episode 3, in which several contestants are dispatched in a game of life-size Battleship, Netflix plays them off with an outrageously overwrought splash of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” In the following episode, when the cast is asked to vote out three of their own—determined solely through social engineering—a new-age natural medicine quack is immediately banished by the sheer force of his own bad vibes.

If you wish to be extremely charitable, you could interpret The Challenge as a meta inversion of the Squid Game formula—steadily eroding our own faculties until we, the audience, match the bloodthirsty sadism of the drama’s society. But after watching the attentive fixation on one man’s upset stomach, I am not inclined to give Netflix too much credit. This is uncut schadenfreude that activates my worst instincts, a version of Squid Game with nothing but contempt for our fellow man. When you remove the pathos and introspection—when there is no moral investigation into why these real-life men and women are undercutting each other in pursuit of a life-changing sum of money—the result is an intoxicating spectacle for your id.

Nobody should be surprised, really. In an era in which the imperative is to extend and exploit every successful entertainment property until it reaches the world-conquering scale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, nuance and coherence will always be the first casualties. A similar story is playing out across other streaming frequencies, including on Prime Video, where anyone can watch all eight episodes of another unlikely reality show: 007: Road to a Million. The format is a tad more high-concept compared to The Challenge, if only because Amazon isn’t working with an established rubric. In 2021, the company purchased MGM for $8.5 billion, largely so it could get its hands on the secret agent, and its first export of the brand isn’t a new movie but something that’s quite a bit cheaper to produce: a reality show, in this case one in which nine pairs of friends and family members traipse through an Ian Flemingflecked adventure in pursuit of a million-dollar cash prize. (Stunts include scaling a crane to retrieve a metal briefcase, handling a Burmese python, and so on.)

Beyond the eye-popping prize, Road to a Million does look incredibly expensive. The show is replete with gorgeous drone-shot panoramas following the teams on their globe-spanning journey, traveling south from the foggy peaks of the Scottish Highlands to the byzantine waterways of Venice, suggesting the enviable special-agent work of a Daniel Craig–era Bond film. Orchestrating all the trials is Brian Cox—a nice get indeed—who plays a paper-thin supervillain known only as “the Controller.” He sits in a darkened headquarters monitoring the action, offering the occasional satisfied bon mot as a contestant falters under the pressure. But in addition to finding a new avenue for brand extension, Amazon must be aware that even the glossiest reality show can’t approach the hefty price tag of a new Bond movie, especially after the last one grossed more than $750 million and still managed to end up in the red.

Like The Challenge, Road to a Million functions as a serviceable reality show. It’s also far less vindictive than the Squid Game pastiche—angling for the feel-good tone of The Amazing Race, where ordinary people venture far outside their comfort zone while being cheered on by their loved ones. And yet, at every turn, the show strains to capture the aura of its source material. 007 is one of the most protected franchises in the history of Hollywood. James Bond has only been played on the big screen by a small brotherhood of actors; the latest inheritor is a subject of yearslong hot speculation. Road to a Million may be about as lavish as a reality show can be, but just as with Netflix and Squid Game, it’s still disorienting to watch Amazon begin the brutal work of squeezing their new purchase dry in service of an omnivorous content ecosystem—a new multiverse of Bond, piloted by the same company that sells you pallets of dog food.

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