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Physical 100 Netflix.png

Netflix's 'Physical: 100' Is A Reality Competition That Refuses To Force Its Own Narrative

By Allyson Johnson | TV | February 24, 2023 |

By Allyson Johnson | TV | February 24, 2023 |

Physical 100 Netflix.png

Spoilers Below for Season One of Physical: 100

If and when a reality series becomes appealing (to me) there’s always a level of earnestness or politeness involved. From Singles Inferno to The Great Pottery Throwdown, there’s a thread — hardly visible — that links them in engaging interest due to ok, sure, pretty people being pretty and talented people being wildly talented, but also an element of friendliness, respect, and engagement. Netflix’s recent reality series, Physical: 100, whose finale aired this past Tuesday, is nothing like the aforementioned shows beyond being in the same medium. A competition broken into challenges to find the strongest person in South Korea, this is a series about might and muscle and still, there’s a level of mutual interest that draws people in the very first episode. It isn’t just ripped athletes performing astonishing feats; it’s also those same ripped athletes oohing and ahhing and complimenting their competitors on their physiques.

It’s oddly nice and that niceness never undercuts the tension built in competition.

Over the course of nine episodes, the series follows one hundred contestants in top physical shape as they compete in a series of demanding physical challenges to be the last one standing and win the cash reward. One of the most immediate delights is that while each contestant is in undeniably great shape, this isn’t a show where each and every member is built the same. From bodybuilders to gymnasts, dancers, cheerleaders, and MMA fighters, there’s a range of demographics shown across the sphere of fitness. An Olympic gymnast goes up against a stunt double and it’s thrilling to watch two similar-in-stature contestants square off in such opposing manners. One crawls; the other leaps.

Physical: 100 delivered the level of high-stakes drama and tension most typically found in narrative series. We gasped and hid our heads in our shirts as our favorites lost graciously and determined to become stronger. We might’ve actually yelled at the screen once or twice, playing commentators on the team’s progress, armed with utilitarian suggestions that we thought best — as if we’d bestow them upon these God-sculpted athletes while we sipped wine and chomped chips.

If any moment was a let down it was, pardon me, the winner. Was the feat of pulling on that rope until it reached its end impressive? Absolutely. And the way in which the series defined the rules of each challenge meant we never questioned the fairness of a certain fight. That said, the winner, in a narrative-structured story, would’ve been a supporting character at best. Here, he gets to be the champion and, I guess, that too is part of the magnetism of Physical: 100.

There’s an urge to define players as certain archetypes while watching this stupidly addictive reality competition series. By the midpoint there were three competitors who could be considered “main characters” for a barrage of reasons, be it their inherent charisma or star quality, the way in which they led their teams, the focus the camera paid them, or just the conditioned belief of who warrants leading status. The Netflix reality series had its favorites.

There’s Jang Eun-sil, a South Korean member of the national wrestling team who had to play against her underdog status as she won a competition made up of a team of players the other leaders didn’t want. She was charismatic and the camera followed her as she took the brunt of demanding challenges and rallied her teammates when defeat crept near.

Choo Sung-Hoon is a former Judo fighter and current MMA fighter, who’s highly respected among the other contestants. The 47-year-old won gold at the 2001 Asian Judo Championships and was another contestant poised to be a crowd favorite. Older than many of the other competitors, he brought a level of prestige and recognition with him, admired for both his strengths and looks by other players. Strategic and clever with how he surpassed games, the expectation at his introduction was a place in the top five.

Then, there’s Jo Jin-hyeong, a car dealer who previously won the Strongest Man competition in 2019. If Jang was our audience insert and the underdog we rooted for, and Choo was the seasoned and knowledgeable veteran, Jo was the pure muscle and determination — the gentle giant of sorts. His strength wasn’t found in chiseled and dehydrated abs but in the practical displays. He made it into the final five during Quest 4’s Punishment of Atlas challenge where he held a 110-lb rock above his head for over two hours.

And yet, they all lose. Only one of them — Jo — makes it to the top five. Out of that top five, there’s one other notable contestant, a mountain-rescue and ice-climber named Kim Min-cheol, who seems like he’d be the understudy if all the favorites were cut loose, with his practical muscles and his determination to be strong in order to save lives. But the odds were stacked against even him as the first game of four was based on the sheer strength of build, and his (in comparison) diminutive size did not stand a chance of keeping himself grounded.

Physical 100’s success and how it thrives could be boiled down to three aspects: The genuine excitement that comes from watching people do things we can’t imagine; the patience of the production team in making sure we saw every strain, every drop of sweat on the contestants as they weathered the increasingly difficult challenges; and the refusal to create a narrative, no matter how much our conditioned brains craved them. Yes, I wanted one of my favorites to win, and, no, I didn’t find the winner particularly exciting (I couldn’t even remember his occupation once we arrived at the final two) but I admire the commitment to showing the varying levels of strength. It’s unpredictable and it’s grueling, even just for us viewers.

The full season of Physical: 100 is out on Netflix now.