A Mild Burning Sensation
“Floor Is Lava” on Netflix
Given the amount of spiritual ennui and physical stress overtaking so many of us during this era of quarantines, layoffs and nationwide coin shortages, it’s no real surprise to find that Americans are craving simple, mind-numbing escapist fare when it comes to their entertainment choices. Among the TV shows seeing a real resurgence these days are slapstick-silly game show competitions along the lines of “Wipeout,” “Holey Moley,” “Ultimate Tag” and “Ellen’s Game of Games.” Netflix, no longer one to let an entertainment trend started by someone else pass it by, has jumped firmly onto that bandwagon with its new hit “Floor Is Lava.”
The show is a messy, pratfall-heavy obstacle course competition that plays to both coronavirus-weary viewers looking for an escape from reality and the generations of nostalgic Americans who were raised on Nickelodeon-style game shows like “Super Sloppy Double Dare” and “Legends of the Hidden Temple.” Taking its name and general theme from the traditional “kids stuck in the living room on a rainy day” game, the show challenges contestants to cross a room without touching the floor. But since this is a TV show in 2020, it’s amped up with plenty of hyperactive CG graphics and an over-the-top set that constitutes the sole reason for the show’s appeal.
In each episode three teams of ordinary (but generally fit) folks (schoolteachers, Little League dads, youth pastors, etc.) are sent into the “deadly” lava-filled rooms of a bizarro, Pee-Wee Herman-esque mansion. (Actually, they’re all the same TV studio with the props swapped out, but we’ll let that slide.) There’s the Basement, the Bedroom, the Kitchen, the Planetarium and others. But they all have a few things in common. The floor consists of a pool of sticky, bubbling orange slop. And there are only scattered islands of “furniture” on which to stand. Contestants get one point for every member of their three-person team who makes it to the far side of the room without falling into the “lava” and “dying.” Ties are settled by the fastest time.
“American Ninja Warrior” this ain’t. Contestants inelegantly hop, flop and drop their way across the treacherous rooms, ending up in the drink more often than not. Producers have slipped in a small amount of “escape room” intrigue, just to up the ante a little. Certain props within the rooms can be moved, knocked over or otherwise manipulated to create a safer path to the exit. But the “puzzles” hardly require much in the way of brain work. The primary entertainment value, unsurprisingly, comes from watching people smash their faces into a slop-covered Easter Island head or go skidding, ass over teakettle, off a slippery steamer trunk only to disappear under a lake of orange slime.
In the end one of the teams gets $10,000 and a cheap lava lamp trophy.
No one would mistake “Floor Is Lava” for educational television. Host Rutledge Wood (an actor, writer and well-known auto racing analyst, evidently) tries to keep the energy up by providing color commentary on the contestants’ various trevails. (“That’s a four-foot jump” and “That’s a five-foot jump” being the most common observations.) He’s no John Henson (whose snarky play-by-play made “Wipeout” such a guilty pleasure). But he gets the job done with a minimum of annoyance. (Richard Karn? “Family Feud”? I’m looking at you guys.) The contestants, meanwhile, shout generic encouraging bon mots at one another. It’s not the kind of show that gets you all emotionally invested. But three or four episodes in, on an otherwise lazy Saturday afternoon, don’t be too surprised to hear yourself screaming, “Jump already!” to a mother of two as she hesitates over the final, sinking step to the exit. After all, there’s a $30 lava lamp waiting on the other side.