Netflix’s hit reality series Physical: 100 concluded yesterday, with one athlete — crumpled on the ground on knees and elbows, panting in exhaustion and in agony — beating out 99 competitors who went through a series of intense physical challenges to determine who among them has the best physique. It’s a well-made and entertaining thirst trap that’s held a spot among Netflix’s most-watched shows in the US since its release in late January. Round by round, participants push their bodies in games with random rules for both ego and money. Winning the ₩300 million prize (roughly $230,000) depends not only on a contestant’s particular skills and determination, but also their ability to cooperate on teams and whether the challenge at hand plays to their strengths or works against them.
The Korean show brings together 100 contestants — including national team athletes, content creators, and MMA fighters — to compete in a series of games requiring strength, agility, endurance, and teamwork to prove who has the best physique. The competition has a dark tone, reminiscent of Netflix’s Squid Game. In Physical: 100, contestants put on uniforms and are herded into a room where an ominous voice announces game rules as a projection of a blue, glowing orb looms over them, invoking the Eye of Sauron. Winners move on to the next game; losers confront life-size sculptures of their torsos and smash them with a hammer.
Everyone on the show is painfully hot and capable. Participants glisten as they strip their tops, revealing beautifully sculpted bodies that are frequently captured in slow motion — so that you may gawk at every hardened muscle. The throbbing soundtrack makes it feel as if they’re all going to wrestle and have sex. In the first round, contestants who hang onto a raised bar the longest are promised an advantage in the next game. We watch as slick athletes and special forces operatives sweat and contort their limbs into increasingly strained positions. Big talkers and men with head-sized biceps fall to the wayside as quieter challengers and overlooked women cling to the bar, some for more than 15 minutes. In another game, challengers hold an enormous rock over their heads for hours until only one is standing.
Everyone on the show is painfully hot and capable.
The spectacle of strength alone is compelling enough to warrant a marathon viewing, but the allure of Physical: 100 is not just the eye candy — it’s also the ethos of the competition. Participants approach the games with collegial spirit and a reverence for both teammates and opponents, both of which are sorely missing in many American reality series, which are set up to stoke interpersonal drama and backstabbing. Those who are eliminated warmly cheer on the competitors who remain. The show’s older participants, like 47-year-old mixed martial artist Choo Sung-hoon (aka Yoshihiro Akiyama), are respected for their wisdom and experience, and team leaders take charge in group challenges with little drama.
Physical: 100 efficiently builds up characters through their accolades, reputations, and incredible builds. “He’s so strong that he’s called a human murder weapon,” one contestant gushes about opponent Agent H, a navy veteran. Clear favorites are established by the end of the first episode, even if you’ve never heard of these athletes before, and many of the favorites are quickly eliminated — this is a meritocracy. Some of the stars include skeleton racing gold medalist Yun Sung-bin (aka South Korea’s “Iron Man”), wrestler Jang Eun-sil, and Olympic gold medal–winning gymnast Yang Hak-seon.
To an American viewer, Physical: 100 can feel like a splashy promotion for Korean athleticism, a project for enhancing Korean soft power on the heels of the massive success of government-supported K-pop. The president of MBC, the production company behind Physical: 100, said he always had a global audience in mind for the show. There are a handful of contestants who are not Korean, including Nigeria-born dancer Miracle Nelson and American baseball player Dustin Nippert, but the show is distinctly Korean — and American audiences have proven to have a strong appetite for Korean cultural exports. Contestants speak confidently about their capabilities, their chances of winning, and their eagerness to take on the competition, all while maintaining a mild-mannered politeness that is foundational in East Asian cultures (and that I find comforting). This level of jingoism might be irritating if all the wet, muscled-up competitors weren’t such a potent distraction.
Physical: 100 is free of this foul white gaze.
For me, it was particularly rewarding to see Physical: 100 depict strength, confidence, and sheer physicality so radiantly through Asian bodies, including in women. Mainstream depictions of power in the US have rarely included Asian people, who have largely existed in the background in America, obscured by stereotypes about being passive and complacent. Physical: 100 is free of this foul white gaze. While we watched the show, my husband commented how refreshing it was to see beauty and strength in ways that are usually reserved for white people on American TV. Seeing it awoke a desire in me — a naturally small and unathletic person — to experience the physicality of flipping a person over my shoulder and pinning them to the ground.
Yet Physical: 100 never manages to break free of casual sexism. The 23 women — among them wrestlers, stunt people, boxers, bodybuilders — are repeatedly cast aside by their male competitors, which is painful to watch. Female wrestler Jang Eun-sil, who leads a team of underdogs (generally women and men with smaller frames) in several games, became a fan favorite after her team beats another of larger, more confident athletes. Nevertheless, the challenges showcase what these women are capable of in terms of strength, endurance, and leadership against their male counterparts, and it’s impossible not to root for them, even as they are eventually eliminated one by one.
The show also has sadistic undertones. Several of the challenges are called punishments (holding up the rock was ”The Punishment of Atlas,” and there’s another in which contestants roll a 100-kilogram boulder up a hill called “The Punishment of Sisyphus”). The exhausted participants repeatedly comment on how cruel the tasks are; one said he felt like his heart would explode. Yet they persist.
Physical: 100, which has been incessantly compared to Squid Game, inevitably comes to a bittersweet conclusion. CrossFitter and snowboarder Woo Jin-yong wins. He is neither the largest nor the strongest of the bunch, and he is never framed as a favorite, but he perseveres through sheer tenacity against opponents with far more dominating physiques and impressive résumés. In the final match between Woo and cyclist Jung Hae-min, both men persist through grueling pain and fatigue, abiding by rules they didn’t make up and enduring one unnecessary punishment after another for pride and money — their victories were agony, yet I couldn’t help but enjoy watching it. ●