Entertainment

What Makes Netflix's Super Popular Game Show 'Floor Is Lava' So Addictive

This proudly goofy update of a childhood game keeps bubbling up on Netflix's Top 10.

floor is lava
Patrick Wymore/Netflix

Netflix's unapologetically silly competition game show Floor Is Lava is currently as hot as the molten substance that inspired its goofy name. Facing off against an original comedy starring a pair of genuine movie stars and a terrible-looking Polish erotic thriller, the series currently has the number one spot in the Netflix Top 10, where it's hung around since debuting on June 19. It's enough to make you finally stop scrolling past it during your pandemic streaming session and ask, "What the hell is this?"

Taking its inspiration from a childhood furniture-hopping time-killer, the self-consciously retro series taps into the ever-present nostalgia for cheesy shows like Legends of the Hidden Temple and the current popularity of ridiculous athletic throw-downs like American Ninja Warrior. Like The Circle, Love Is Blind, and Nailed It,Floor Is Lava is also an attempt by Netflix to mint their own versions of pre-existing reality TV comfort food. But mostly, it's just an excuse to watch people make gravity-defying jumps and fall into the "lava" below. Here's what you need to know as you take the plunge. 

floor is lava
Patrick Wymore/Netflix

What game is Floor Is Lava based on?

Floor Is Lava is inspired by a classic, simple game: spread couch cushions, chairs, and other household items out on the ground and pretend the floor is "lava" as you make your way from point A to point B. That means you lose if you touch the lava or fall in. While no one knows what kid first decided to make a mess and play a version of this game, an article from 2018 in Quartz points to an academic paper suggesting that the pastime took off in America in the mid-20th century as "the rise of the family room" spread through suburban architecture. 

Like plenty of popular folk games, many kids think they invented it themselves. "It was so much fun and seems to be a pretty universal childhood experience," said Floor Is Lava producer Megan McGrath in a recent interview with Fast Company. "The interesting thing about it is that everyone thinks they invented it . . . and they did! Every kid who’s played it came up with it on their own, without realizing that everyone else was playing it, too. That’s what’s great about it. I realized it could be a fun game show, but I knew we had to supersize it, so that’s what we did!"

floor is lava
Patrick Wymore/Netflix

What are the rules on Floor Is Lava and how do you win? 

The rules of Netflix's Floor Is Lava are a little bit more complicated than the childhood game. During each episode, teams of three competitors -- typically a trio of friends, family, or co-workers -- must make their way through a specially designed "room" level, which has often been outfitted with some garish, vaguely mystical artifacts, like a coffin containing an alien, and tricked-out versions of household items, like a spinning four-post bed. There are often a few objects that can be used to unlock certain helpful pathways in the course or activate certain tools that will make crossing easier, or are essential to figure out to make it to the end. It's a bit like an escape room meets an obstacle course, demanding more teamwork and strategy than individual brainpower and brawn. 

The goal is to get every member of your team across. Teams get a point for each member who makes it to the end without falling in the lava, and the team with the most points gets a $10,000 cash prize. (They also get a lava lamp trophy, but most people are more excited about the money.) If multiple teams get the same number of people across, the tiebreaker is decided by the time, so it's always a good idea to move as fast as possible through the course. 

And, of course, the number one priority is to not fall in the "lava," a bubbly red liquid that gurgles up and explodes at key moments. There are a handful of "rules" that seem to have been presented to the players that aren't necessarily made clear to the viewer. For example, if your foot falls in the lava, it's fine to keep playing, but if an object that can't be used as a stepping stone falls and floats in the lava, you've got to leave it there and stop using it. A degree of suspension of disbelief is required to really sell the "stakes" of the game. 

floor is lava
Adam Rose/Netflix

Where do the contestants go when they fall in the lava?

They all die!!! No, of course they don't die. But one of the mildly clever parts of the show is the way the contestants appear to sink into the bubbling liquid when they fall in and never return. (At least until the post-game interview.) While producers and production designers have been fairly tight-lipped in interviews about the actual process behind this aspect of the production, it looks it's mostly an editing trick where they cut-away to reactions after the fall, allowing the contestant to either swim off camera or get pulled under by someone working on the production. Some of the wipe-outs look painful, but there are no gruesome disaster-movie-like lava melting deaths as part of the show.

floor is lava
Patrick Wymore/Netflix

Who is the host of Floor Is Lava?

Floor Is Lava is hosted by Rutledge Wood, a car-racing analyst and one of the co-host's of the American version of the car show Top Gear, which aired on the History Channel from 2010 to 2016. You hear his voice at the beginning of every race on Floor Is Lava, laying out the rules and getting the contestants psyched up, and he appears at the end to present the winners with their trophy and prize money. Where exactly is he narrating the action from during the races? He must be hiding in one of the pyramids on set.

floor is lava
Patrick Wymore/Netflix

Should you watch Floor Is Lava?

This show is proudly dumb, so your enjoyment depends on how broken your brain is. After working your way through another twist-filled episode of Dark or finishing the grim season finale of Ozark, Floor Is Lava might be the mindless, relaxing distraction you're looking for. (If you have kids, it might already be on your radar.) The show doesn't take itself seriously, the production design is fun, and many of the contestants have clearly been encouraged to ham it up. The triplets in the first episode are having a blast, treating the show like a vacation from reality, and that type of dopey on-screen joy can be infectious. Plus, the lava looks cool. 

At the same time, Floor Is Lava suffers from the same problem as many other Netflix originals in a number of genres: Freed from demands of commercial breaks and time restrictions, the episodes can feel bloated and repetitive, particularly as you watch multiple teams work their way through the same obstacle course. Since the teams never interact with each other and don't get to watch each other run the courses, the competition aspect of the show often feels oddly frictionless, like you're watching teams compete in a vacuum. When the show returns for the now inevitable second season -- again, it's sitting very high on the Top 10 at the moment, so it'll almost certainly come back at some point -- hopefully the producers will have made some necessary tweaks to the gameplay. But keep the lava, please. 

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.