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Netflix Sets Reality TV Aflame With Floor Is Lava

Netflix's new competition series tests teams' ability to traverse a room full of roiling "lava."
  • Floor is Lava . (Netflix)
    Floor is Lava . (Netflix)

    While a lot of TV shows had whole seasons in the can before the COVID-19 pandemic sent non-essential workers into quarantine, the time is fast approaching when we're going to run out of new shows. Some networks have already started adapting with self-shot shows, like Fox's Celebrity Watch Party and the Food Network's Amy Schumer Learns To Cook, and more are being announced every day. But here's a show you might not think of as potentially pandemic-proof: Floor Is Lava.

    Belonging to the burgeoning low-stakes high-comedy game show subgenre of reality TV, like Holey Moley and Ultimate Tag before it, Floor Is Lava takes a childhood activity and blows it out of all reasonable proportion. But just as Ultimate Tag has to make more out of less than Holey Moley did — in that Holey Moley is at least based on mini-golf, and Ultimate Tag is based on running around a park trying not to let your brother touch you — Floor Is Lava has to make more out of even less than Ultimate Tag. If you ever played "floor is lava" as a kid, you know there was only one rule: you couldn't touch the floor, or you were dead. You jumped from chair to couch to coffee table in the basement; maybe you tried to shove your siblings and cousins onto the lava floor; maybe if you were very imaginative, or very excitable, you could rile yourselves all up into a shared hallucination that, no, really, the floor actually was lava! Now that's a game show.

    In keeping with a show created by people who vaguely remembered ruining the springs in their parents' rumpus room love seat and turned it into a concept they could sell to Netflix, it's not an especially ambitious game show. There's a "room" filled with hot orange liquid. It's dotted with stepping stones of various sorts. Some elements in the space can be manipulated to change the landscape (drop a coffin to create a bridge; lower a chandelier to swing on). In each episode, three teams of previously acquainted people take turns tackling the room, with the object of getting the greatest number of teammates from the entrance to the exit, as quickly as possible, without falling into the lava that has consumed the floor. They'll earn a point for each team member that makes it across; in the event of a tie, the team that does it fastest takes the prize: $10,000 and the "Volcano of Victory" (a.k.a. a lava lamp — what else?). There are aspects of an obstacle course, aspects of an escape room, and a whole lot of submerged jets ready to shoot hot "lava" at contestants juuuuuust as they're trying to land a tricky jump.

    At the top of each episode, host Rutledge Wood introduces the viewer to the room, and maps out a couple of paths players may want to take through the space, focusing on one or two but claiming there are potentially dozens. That may be true, but based on the three episodes this critic was given to screen, that isn't borne out in the final product. All three episodes seem to be shot in the same tank, which has been dressed slightly differently for each episode — The Basement, The Bedroom, The Planetarium. And in all three episodes, while there is a path that can be followed by creeping like a lizard along the wall stage right, it really only makes sense for one person to try to go that way, while the other two set off toward stage left. So the viewer watches one team assay the room... and then watches two more teams follow more or less the same path. Obviously, it wouldn't be fair to compare teams' performance against one another in different room configurations; it would be a lot less boring for the viewer, though.

    That said, this show probably isn't really made for viewers like me; I assume it's meant to entertain children and tweens between seasons of Nailed It!. That's not to say I don't enjoy either Nailed It! or a good pratfall, and seeing an identical triplet desperately cling to the deceptively slick sides of a miniature pyramid, lest he be consumed by "lava," is somewhat amusing. Speaking of which: when a contestant slips into the lava, either good editing or good reality-show acting makes it look like this tank is deep as hell; and after contestants fall in, the viewer does not see them again (unless and until it turns out their team won, in spite of them). Both of these choices are to be commended for trying to sell the ridiculous illusion that...like, the floor really is lava, you guys.

    But what no one could have guessed when this project was pitched is that, with a few fairly minor tweaks, maybe it could resume production relatively safely during the pandemic. Since the teams are made up of people who already know each other, producers could limit the contestant pool to people who have been quarantining together. I hope the tank was already being emptied between teams' runs just to conform to non-pandemic hygiene standards, but if it wasn't (ew), a crew could come in and sanitize the tank and fixtures between shooting days. Professional hair and makeup artists are unnecessary; all the contestants just end up orange and slimy a few minutes in anyway. I'm pretty sure all the cameras are fixed in the studio; if they're not, they could be. Teammates only interact with each other, unless they win, in which case they meet Wood to receive their prize money, but he could appear in the award room as an Oz-style floating hologram head; the rest of the time he's just offscreen commentating over footage anyway, so he could probably tape all his parts from home. It's hard to imagine a time when contestants or Taggers may feel safe swapping sweat and breathing each other's exhalations in the Ultimate Tag arena again. But this could work!

    Truthfully, though, other than as a time-killer for your older kids or (if I'm right) as an unexpected story of pandemic ingenuity, Floor Is Lava is at the lower tier — deep in the crater, if you will — of childish physical TV contests. If you have enough people and enough furniture to get an actual game of "the floor is lava" going, that would be a lot more fun. If not: I recommend putting some Mentos in a bottle of Diet Coke and moving along.

    The first season of Floor is Lava drops today on Netflix.

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    Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.

    TOPICS: Netflix, Floor Is Lava, Reality TV