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Floor is Lava and Don’t: two kids’ games, turned into reality TV competitions

Netflix’s Floor is Lava and ABC’s Don’t are both kids’ games turned into reality competitions, and they join an increasingly crowded space: simple games that emphasize silly and fun. They’re more slapstick than strategy.

Neither of these two new entrants rise to the level of Holey Moley, but both have their charms—though they have opposite strengths and weaknesses.

Adam Scott, host of Don't
Adam Scott, host of Don’t (Photo by Guy D’Alema/ABC)

Don’t, which is hosted by Adam Scott (from Parks and Recreation and Party Down), is based on the simple idea of winning by not breaking a rule: Don’t blink. Don’t drink a glass of water while eating spicy food.

The show made the critical mistake of breaking its one rule on its very first game, revealing the premise to be flimsier than overcooked spaghetti.

The show is played by teams of four who are related or connected, and in the case of the first family, incredibly annoying. Games are introduced with animated segments, just like Ellen’s Game of Games, which Don’t resembles in more ways than one.

Except: It’s games are all supposed to be about not doing something, but some of the games drop that conceit. For example, Don’t Get Tired has giant tires that roll down a ramp and potentially hit the contestants. But the contestant standing there, ready to possibly be slammed by a massive tire, has zero control over whether or not a tire hits them. That’s dependent upon whether or not the contestants’ teammates correctly answer a trivia question. And thus the game is just: answer a question correctly. That’s it. Don’t has nothing to do with it.

Meanwhile, teams have an option of attempting to double their winnings on one game by pressing something called the Don’t Press button. They can only do for one of the games they play, and if they fail at that game, their winnings are cut in half. But why would that be called the Don’t Press button? Shouldn’t the Don’t Press button be something that you never press, and therefore doesn’t even need to exist?

It’s these kinds of little execution things that just make the show crumble. Its games are either second-rate, seen-it-before challenges (eating spicy food, really? Zzzzz.) or so thin that I can easily imagine actual kids being much more creative than whoever came up with these games.

Don’t is not a must-watch, though I won’t say don’t watch Don’t, because Don’t is not quite a don’t-watch thanks to just one element.

Host Adam Scott is completely adequate, but I’d compare him most to Elizabeth Banks on Press Your Luck: they’re both actors I’ve loved for years, but neither have a reason for hosting this particular show, and neither have found a way of approaching the show to make it their own, in the way that Alec Baldwin has on Match Game, for example. He’s just kind of there.

The real personality comes from the narration, which is by Ryan Reynolds. You’ll recognize the tone from Deadpool, and I appreciated his fourth wall-breaking observations and jokes, which fill in all the dead air, and are often more entertaining than the games.

That’s what the host/narrator seems to be attempting on Floor is Lava, but is failing more than someone falling into a pool of red slime.

Floor is Lava: amazing set, horrifying narration

A contestant falls into the fake lava on Netflix's competition reality show Floor is Lava
A contestant falls into the fake lava on Netflix’s competition reality show Floor is Lava.

Netflix’s latest reality competition is simpler in concept and execution than Don’t or Holey Moley.

If Netflix doesn’t whisk you away to another episode before Floor is Lava shows its credits, you’ll see that the episodes are dedicated to Tim Sullivan, a reality producer and development executive who died about a year ago. When I last talked with him, in early 2019, he was so excited about the show, which he was working on with his Gang of Wolves producing partner Anthony Carbone. So I was excited to see it.

Floor is Lava takes place in a single soundstage room, with an obstacle course that’s redecorated between episodes. The difference is that it has a liquid ground, and the contestants—teams of three—need to get from one door to the other without falling into the lava.

While it is not, of course, actual lava, it is also not just water lit up with red lights. It’s 7,800 cubic feet of thick, splashing, red slime, and it’s visually awesome, gurgling and surging and steaming.

What exactly is Floor is Lava’s lava floor? Producer Irad Eyal told Fast Company that the show “tasked Hollywood’s number-one slime manufacturing lab with coming up with the proprietary blend and then ordered more slime than any show had ever produced—close to 100,000 gallons. I can’t tell you what’s in it, but our showrunner Anthony Carbone always joked that the closest thing to it is Panda Express orange sauce. So if you can get 100,000 gallons of orange sauce, you actually can try this at home.”

It’s not just static orange sauce, like puddles squeezed out from packets. It periodically erupts in plumes and splashes.

In the best editing decision the show makes, when someone falls in, they just disappear, which made me laugh more than once. Shows like Wipeout and Holey Moley usually give some attention to a person paddling back to shore, or getting out and dripping wet, but not here: they’re just gone—well, until their team’s exit interview. (Those interviews are painful, with the trios engaging in banter that’s either been coached or is being repeated so much the authenticity has been drained from it.)

When teams enter the room, their interaction—with each other and with the obstacles—has fun moments. The game is part obstacle course, part escape room, and there’s strategy involved in both manipulating objects and navigating the room, as they try to choose the best path. It’s a clever format.

In each episode, three teams tackle the same course, so it can get a little old, and thus the entertainment hangs on how effective and entertaining the teams are.

What makes it most challenging to watch, though, is the insufferable narration. Top Gear’s Rutledge Wood narrates and pops up at the end to give out the cash prize and lava lamp trophy.

Wood adopts the intonation of Matthew Hoffman from Love Island, but lacks Hoffman’s passion and wit or Ryan Reynolds’ biting commentary. He’s also not offering reactions that feel raw and in-the-moment, like Holey Moley’s commentators, Rob Riggle and Joe Tessitore, who react alongside us.

Mostly, it’s a lot of screaming the obvious over and over, over-explaining everything like this is a cable reality show coming back from a commercial. I know that someone just jumped: I saw them! The explaining even begins before a team starts on the course. Just let me see them attempt the course; don’t tell me all about it first. Don’t show me the routes!

Halfway into the first episode I just wanted to mute it.

The shouting-the-obvious is so obnoxious that I wondered who that was for. One of Netflix’s categories for the show is “family watch together TV,” so maybe kids are the target audience. Though I’m not sure kids like to have the obvious screamed at them, either.

If we could have Floor is Lava with Ryan Reynolds’ narration and tighter editing, we’d have the perfect children’s game reality show. Kids’ games are imperfect works-in-progress, though, so maybe that makes both Floor is Lava and Don’t just fine.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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