‘Physical 100’: The Netflix competition show is more than a ‘squid game’
Netflix’s new “survival show” is more interested in turning heroes into underdogs than the other way around.
In the nine episodes of “Physical 100,” there are plenty of points where a contestant says he’s “fighting for his life.” It’s more of a cliché than a willful ignorance, but it has to do with the reasons this Netflix show probably popped up on people’s radars in the first place and became a hit on its own merits.
Of course, a few moments at the beginning of the show, the “Squid Game” comes out a little. There is the idea of winning over a large group to a winner (although this concept is not exclusive to hitting fictional political allegories). At one point, contestants must stand on numbered tiles (something that prompts one of them to directly reference that other show.) Both are Korean-produced Netflix shows with nine-episode first seasons, but the two shows have far more differences than similarities.
The “Physical 100” calls itself “the search for the most perfect physique.” At first glance, this seems like a fundamentally stupid idea, filled with so many variables and qualifiers that it almost stops your search before it starts (or at least invalidates it). The biggest trick of this Netflix competition show, which aired its final episode this week, is that it’s closer to the final answer than you might think. It starts with assembling a competitor base that includes Olympians, social media phenomenons, CrossFit legends, bodybuilders, and performers.
Mainly, it does this by making the design and execution of elimination “missions” as elegant and simple as possible. With the possible exception of two large team events – designed to give people of all skill levels a chance to compete alongside the most skilled – these competitions are held in bite-sized arenas where the details change rather than influence. Early singles matches have courts with small pools or rope walls. Not a single detail is designed to artificially deprive someone of their benefits. These are obstacles designed to put a slight barrier between the championship and brute force.
Whether it’s millennial stories or playground activities, the best parts of the “Physical 100” don’t need much explanation. The implicit message is that you probably shouldn’t be lifting 200-pound rocks to impress your friends. However, if you could, you wouldn’t have to travel to a custom-built warehouse-sized sound stage to do so. It reduces the idea of strength to its basic components (hanging, running, climbing, etc.) without relying solely on strongman competition spectacles. Not that he does anything like that to pull a plane it doesn’t require strategic skills, but the size makes up for some of the “Physical 100” knockout stages.
The need to not just have power, but use it, is an interesting comparison to “The Climb,” the HBO Max series from earlier this year. “The Climb” had a similar hook, minimally based on a pre-existing phenomenon (“What if ‘Free Solo’ was competitive?”) and thrived on the dynamics of the competitors. Likewise, all of the tension in “Physical 100” that comes from team building or picking opponents is used to tell more about the person making the decisions rather than just creating contrived drama. Strength and pride are completely intertwined here, both in the actual events and the way the other racers offer support from within shouting distance after you’ve dropped out of the running.
All this serves to create a different kind of disadvantage. If anything, the “Physical 100” unites these competitors in one quality: the belief that they can turn their skill and tenacity into a prize of more than $200,000. However, there are still those who, like ‘The Climb’, compete for underrepresented groups outside of themselves. Promotion of less popular sports and professions becomes as much a motivating factor as cash prizes. A self-trained car dealer can outlast MMA fighters or special ops military personnel because they know how to use what they have.
A competition show doesn’t have to confront death itself to be interesting. With reports on Netflix’s actual ‘Squid Game’ inspired reality show ethically murky waters, the “Physical 100” has more on his mind than cashing in on a sensation. Without a host or narrator, the show has complicated power dynamics. Who gets the right to be a team leader is sometimes chosen by ability, sometimes by circumstance, and sometimes by popular vote. These challenges are often designed and executed to reward multiple strategies and offer alternatives to those not prepared to take the most obvious path.
Each player in the “Physical 100” has a plaster cast on their torso that represents them throughout the competition. Players who are eliminated, either by failing a challenge or after a loss, must break this mold. Seeing how people react to having to destroy their own likeness is a social experiment in itself. Some take out their frustration with a hammer. Others are so overwhelmed that they can barely make an effort. One guy even punches his way through it.
If underdog stories are about the rise of unlikely champions, “Physical 100” is a sweeping exercise in humility. 99 of these people, who have spent most of their lives being praised for their watermelon-sized thighs, sculpted neck muscles, or superhuman flexibility, have to face the idea that they can be beaten. So, in a sense, they are fighting for their lives. But it doesn’t have to be life and death to be compelling.
“Physical 100” is now available on Netflix.
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