When I began writing about film and television, it never entered my mind that I would someday be writing about a game show expanded from a kids imagination activity. And yet the youngest critic in my life, my four year old son Logan, has fallen head over heels into the proverbial lava for Floor Is Lava so I’ve decided to try to figure out why it works so well for him.
When Floor Is Lava premiered roughly two years ago on Netflix, I was one of many who tossed it on as pleasant background noise during the early pandemic grind. It debuted in the midst of the worst summer in recent American history and it made for a lovely escape. The show’s goofy concept sees teams of three attempt to traverse an obstacle course room – a slip-up results in a player being subsumed by a pool of roiling “lava.” Each team is themed in some way: triplets or a mother and her kids. It was American Ninja Warrior by way of the old Nickelodeon show GUTS with a heaping helping of the Escape Room craze.
I’m sure a then two year old Logan would’ve seen the show on (it’s not like we were going anywhere), but I can’t recall it resonating for him. Now, however, he regularly plays the conventional version of the floor is lava with his friends and so the show quickly grabbed his attention. Perhaps it’s the show’s simple concept and colorful presentation that catches his eye. Giant leaps across obstacles are met with shouts of joy and giant claps. Coaching is common: “Oh no! Don’t go that way! Why is he doing that?” A fallen player garners a bemused yell of terror. “Daddy, it’s not real lava. If it was real lava, those people would be on fire!” Logan helpfully explains.
The second season brings a few substantial changes to the show’s first season formula – all for the better. While the first season saw victors crowned based first on what team advanced the most members to the exit, and then fastest times in the event of a tie, the second season adds a new climactic twist. The top two teams each advance to a finale that sees teams forced to climb a goofy volcano and put puzzle pieces into places at the mountain’s summit – it directly echoes the Aggro Crag from GUTS. It’s a fun twist. “I like that when they go up the volcano there’s a lava slide for the loser team!” Logan adds highlighting one of the goofy twists as each defeated team must slide down the mountain into the lava.
They’ve also added “exit buttons” which must be collected by each player before completing a room, preventing one strong player from solving all of a rooms most difficult puzzles for his or her teammates. The show’s creators have also changed the formula of the lava this season. While the first season looked like orange colored water, this new lava is far more viscous and goopy, “like real lava now!” per Logan. Finally, and most importantly for the show’s dynamic, the early teams now watch their later competition from a bridge above the lava room alongside the show’s host, the pitch perfect Justin Rutledge. It adds tension, but more importantly humor, to the show’s warm mixture of goofy competition.
So why does it work so well? I think the answer is simple – everyone is not only in on the joke, but committed to it. Every player is well coached to act at Tommy Wiseau levels when a teammate falls to their doom. Contestants jubilantly fill in the blank whenever Rutledge shouts that the “floor is…” It’s just good spirited in an era when most game shows have a nasty post-American Idol glint to them. Is Floor Is Lava high art? Hell no. It’s a show about grown adults playing a kids game with – har har – a lava lamp trophy at the end of the road. For a four year old little boy? It’s about as perfect as a show can get. I feel like it hits the exact same place for Logan that American Gladiators used to hit for me as a little kid and that’s not nothing.
Floor Is Lava Season Two debuts on Netflix tomorrow, June 3, 2022.