This might be the most Korean thing I write in this blog so if the terms infinite and challenge together doesn't prompt an immediate image in your head, feel free to skip this post as it's not going to mean much to you. For those of you still curious, Infinite Challenge is the most famous "variety" show in Korea, a genre that I actually don't think exists in the United States. One could argue that variety falls under the broad category of "reality tv" but since that phrase has such a negative connotation in the states, I prefer not to associate my favorite show of all time with it. It's hard to capture what really happens in Korean entertainment business without getting deep into Korean culture, both the vastness and small (in relativity) size of the industry, as well as Korean entertainment history - today I want to focus on Infinite Challenge itself, so more to come on those topics later. I also recognize I probably have more "more to come later" posts lined up than actual posts on my blog, I promise I'm keeping track (not).
To start with a disclaimer, Infinite Challenge is actually no longer airing, running from 2005 to 2018 - I actually can't believe it's been more than 3 years since its last episode. 13 years is quite some time for any TV show, and especially in the age of quickly changing trends and an ever growing pressure to not step on people shoes and adhere to political correctness (which is a thing in Korea too!), it's hard to keep up premium comedy for over a decade. This is an even more miraculous feat considering that outside of a couple DUI related hiccups near the end of the show's reign, the six main members of the show kept up the program's popularity throughout the years. Especially into the second half of the 2010's, as Korea's television programming was dominated by what's known as "reactionary" TV's, where someone's life or activity is recorded and a panel watches and provides meaningless commentary to what's going on and the public watches the panel (it's like when you watch someone on Youtube react to someone else playing a video game, which I find disturbing in some ways), it's pretty astounding that Infinite Challenge was able to shine through it all. Perhaps it's because it stayed true to its original mission of continuing to traverse through an infinite array of challenges (do you get it now), which included not being shaken up by current day entertainment practices.
Much of what makes the show fun is the built up dynamic amongst the members, the clearly artificial but feels genuine rivalries amongst same age pairs (age hierarchy is a big deal back in my home country), and the ever changing but deeply rooted character each personality holds that the audience knows inside and out. There's the main MC who's revered as the king but also the master of "poking around" and teasing, the guy who's supposedly dumb and eats a lot but is surprisingly multi talented, the oldest one who gets mad easily and looks like an alien, the crazy one with attention grabbing fashion, the one who sucks up to the king and acts childish while being jealous of the crazy one, and the wild card who adapts to whatever is thrown at him in his own interpretation. If this prompts you to connect each of these people with friends in your own social circle, or better yet, wish this was a group you were part of to do reckless things with, the show is doing its job. I think entertainment is, at its best, a way of living vicariously through those literally being paid to present a "realistic" picture of human dynamics, while embracing the multi million budgets and often times orchestrated in a scripted format and acted out by the top .1% of aesthetic beauties. What makes Infinite Challenge unique is that while it does have some over the top budgeted episodes (they ran a WWE show, 4 music festivals, participated in bobsledding and hung out with Jack Black), much of its fun relies on the personalities and could be done without a budget (one of my favorite episodes is a "bingo" episode where they complete challenges in public like finding someone named ____).
Most of the members are doing quite well post the show's closure, all running their own variety shows and trying their hardest to grow out from Infinite Challenge "shadows." Of course none of them will have any problem putting food on their table, but the show's impact was definitely strong enough (maybe an understatement) where it's hard to imagine them without the show as much as you can't imagine the show without them. It's sad to think that instead of in 2005 the show started in 2021, it probably wouldn't have done as well with questions like "why is the cast all men" or "why are they being so rude to each other" taking precedence over the comedic value and the feeling of "home" associated with the show. Politics aside, it lies at the heart of every Korean of the past decade entertainment generation, before a time of over exposure to content and a new show or celebrity popping out every other day. While optionality to choose what you want to watch is a net positive, never being satisfied with the over exposure to low quality material is not. I still rely on Infinite Challenge as a safe bet for my eating alone time entertainment and will probably continue to do so, even as I run out of episodes to watch. I think it's as close to a "comfort meal" of a show it can get and my sturdy virtual companion as I chase my own infinite challenges.