LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
There's a Netflix game show so silly, so stupid, and so low-stakes that we can't stop watching it. Teams of three try to cross a course made of furniture and obstacles without touching the ground.
STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: It's called "Floor Is Lava." It's based on a game played by children. And, let's be honest, it couldn't be played by anyone else, except on Netflix. "Floor Is Lava" recently returned for a new season, so it's time to revisit our conversation about the series. I'm Stephen Thompson.
HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. On today's encore episode of NPR's POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, you won't want to miss a minute of the craziest, the wackiest, the goofiest game show on Netflix because...
LINDA HOLMES AND STEPHEN THOMPSON: The floor is lava.
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HOLMES: Welcome back. You just met NPR Music's Stephen Thompson. I don't know if you could tell that that was me and Stephen because we hid our identities so well. But also with us from his home in Washington, D.C., we have J.C. Howard, a producer of NPR's TED Radio Hour and How I Built This. Hi, J.C.
JC HOWARD, BYLINE: Hey there.
HOLMES: Has anyone ever had a more auspicious beginning to their time with POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR than a man whose - his first appearance is to discuss "Floor Is Lava?"
HOWARD: I mean - and truly, I wouldn't have it any other way. This is the best way I could join the PCHH family.
HOLMES: It's absolutely right. I mean, honestly, like, I know you have a rich range of interests, but none of them could be more important than this.
HOLMES: So if you ever played a similar game to "Floor Is Lava" as a child, where you're in your living room and you can't touch the floor, and you have to try to get from one side of the room to the other, and you're walking on the table, and you're jumping on the couch, that's what this is, except shot in a giant building that used to be an IKEA, which is one of my favorite factoids. They basically filled these rooms with orange, bubbly gunk that plays the part of lava. The host, whose name is Rutledge Wood - and that's sort of who Stephen and I were paying tribute to in that intro - Rutledge Wood does a lot of voice-overs as teams of three attempt to get from one side to the other. Now, you get a point every time you get someone across out of your team of three and also for the time.
So, Stephen, look...
THOMPSON: (Laughter) Yes.
HOLMES: ...On maybe the first episode we ever did of POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR...
THOMPSON: It was the first episode we ever did.
HOLMES: ...We talked about "Wipeout," which was a past summer show with similar splat appeal. You were a big fan of "Wipeout." I feel like "Floor Is Lava" is made for you. And by the way, it's called "Floor Is Lava." It's not called "The Floor Is Lava." It's called "Floor Is Lava"...
HOWARD: That's right. That's right.
HOLMES: ...Like it's a newspaper headline. They just found out. The newspaper tells you one day - floor is lava. Stephen, was I right that this is up your alley? - because I thought it would be.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, I am not a deeply complex person. So...
HOLMES: Now, that's not true.
THOMPSON: ...I am one who enjoys watching people bonk into things and then splash into the water. Now, unlike "Wipeout" - "Wipeout" is really built around, like its title suggests, wiping out. So you are running an obstacle course on "Wipeout" in which you are really meant to, like, bounce off the big rubber thing...
HOLMES: (Laughter) Yeah.
THOMPSON: ...And splat into the water. And then they show that in slow motion. And that's kind of the appeal of the show. I think in that very first episode of the show, when we talked about "Wipeout" - almost exactly 10 years ago - I described the general feel of the show as bonk, sploosh (ph). And that's kind of what you're getting on "Wipeout."
Now, this is more of an obstacle course where if you do the sploosh, you disappear from the game. And when I say you disappear from the game, you sink into the lava, never to be seen again...
THOMPSON: ...Which, at first, I was studying, like, what sort of incredibly high-tech mechanism do they have for getting these people to, like, somehow disappear under - they clearly are told, when you fall into the water, just sink under it, and we'll take it from there.
THOMPSON: This is ultimately a show that, if it works perfectly - like, if people play it perfectly, you never actually see a wipeout. But you are seeing this sport that is centered on the avoidance of that big splat, but it is still pitched in that same fun, silly, doofy (ph) way. And I think this show gets the tone exactly right, where it's not mocking you for watching it. It doesn't think you're stupid for watching it. It's not grave. It doesn't take itself too seriously.
HOLMES: (Laughter) No, it's not.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) It is the farthest thing from grave. It's having fun with you. And I think that's really key to how fun I thought this show was.
HOLMES: Yeah. So, J.C., the way that you got dragged into this is that we saw you on Twitter talking about how you were watching this. Tell me what you think of "Floor Is Lava."
HOWARD: I have many feelings. You know, with "Wipeout," they fall in, and it's more embarrassing, right? Whereas with "Floor Is Lava," I feel like it's more tragic.
HOWARD: Like, you're rooting for them, and it's like, you know - and truly, as Stephen said, you know, they disappear. And that's the most ominous thing about it, right? Like, when I first decided to watch it, before I even clicked play, honestly, I was skeptical. I imagined someone jumping from couch to a table. When they would inevitably fall in, they'd be eliminated. And I just imagined them, you know, standing up in this, you know, waist-deep pool of lava - quote-unquote, "lava" - and having to walk to the exit all dejected.
HOLMES: Not real lava, we should say.
HOWARD: No, not real lava, which was a disappointment to some, to be honest.
HOWARD: But even then I thought, you know, who wants to watch a grown adult literally wade through their failure, you know? Like...
THOMPSON: I do enough of that in my life.
HOWARD: Yeah. You know, like, there's plenty of that in the world right now. So I wondered, like, what are they going to do to make the stakes high enough to actually be interesting? When we played Floor Is Lava as kids, you fall off the ottoman, and you just - you start over. You fall off the playground, you just start over. But they raise the stakes by making the lava itself really ominous. And I appreciate Stephen bringing that up because when you fall into the lava, you do not swim. You do not float. You are gone.
HOLMES: It's true.
HOWARD: I remember during one of the episodes, one of the contestants - when their teammate falls in, the contestant says, Nick (ph), where'd you go? And I was like, oh, my God. I have the exact same question...
HOWARD: ...Because, I mean - like, they make a huge deal about it being, you know, 80,000 gallons of lava. And when the contestants fall in, they disappear, truly never to be seen again.
HOLMES: It's true. You never see them again. And the funny thing about it is someone falls in the lava, and then the teammate goes, no, or they yell something like, I will avenge you.
HOLMES: And it's so dumb, but it did make me laugh.
HOLMES: I wrote about this a little bit in our newsletter, you know, available for subscription, as always, at npr.org/popculturenewsletter - more insights like this by the week. When I wrote about it, one of the things I said is so many things during this time of pandemic and multiple other very, very difficult and upsetting happenings in the world, it has been really hard for me to find a lighthearted thing that I can tolerate watching because if it's something that makes light of real-world events, it feels weird.
HOLMES: And if it's something that - you know, I just - it's been really hard to find that sweet spot. This show was something where I could actually sit down and genuinely just distract myself. People talk about things where you turn off your brain. Talk about turning off your brain.
HOLMES: Like, your brain is only going to make the show worse.
HOLMES: Like, your brain being on is an impediment. So get your brain out of there. And the other thing I like about it, you know, we talked about the contestants kind of putting on the show of mourning a grisly death in the lava. But the other thing is you also get the contestants, like, who try to psych themselves up in different various ways - 'cause these contestants are personalities. You're supposed to, like, like or not like them based on their personalities. And, of course, as always, you have the ones that you like.
HOLMES: And you have the ones that you do not like.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I wanted to talk about this. I think if I have a complaint about this show, it is too heavily reliant in its casting on dudes who communicate by shouting bro at each other. There's a lot of bro teams. And that's a little bit of a bummer compared to the - I think, the more interesting teams. Like, there's this team of incredibly plucky flight attendants that I found myself really emotionally attached to very quickly. There's a team of, like, teachers and one of them is a geologist who helpfully - without making - putting too fine a point on it - points out that this is actually magma and not lava.
HOLMES: Because it's out of the volcano, right?
THOMPSON: Yeah - before he immediately falls into it.
THOMPSON: But at the same time, as much as I think this show is a little overly stacked with bro-y (ph) dudes, I love the fact that the bro-y dudes are often terrible at it because they're often not as good at deploying the strategy that is sometimes necessary to get across this room. This is not really - these are not really courses you can beast the way...
HOLMES: Right. It's true.
THOMPSON: ...A lot of these dudes kind of think they can do. Like, they're like, I'm just going to beast it. That's my strategy.
THOMPSON: And often, they will fall apart in spectacular fashion that I greatly, greatly enjoy.
HOWARD: Yeah. I mean, one of the ways it's been described is also kind of like "American Ninja Warrior," right?
HOWARD: I think it's more like if "American Ninja Warrior" also included a maze where you had to, like, find your path.
HOWARD: So it's like - it's also a mind game at the same time because, yeah, you're doing like long jumps and monkey bars, but you're also, like, trying to strategize and find the best path. I think the best kind of way to describe it is more like a cross between, as we said earlier, "Wipeout," "American Ninja Warrior" and "Honey, I Shrunk The Kids."
HOLMES: It's true.
THOMPSON: I would not have guessed that that's where you were going with that.
HOWARD: Yeah. Yeah, that's the best way, I think, to describe it.
HOLMES: No, no, no. But it's true 'cause the sets are sort of these comical rooms, which are, you know, weirdly scaled, and you're going through these different environments. I agree with that. The other thing, you know - when you talk about how the physical skill does not amount to brute strength, there's a team where they mention very early that they all are, like, really, really into yoga. And I remember as soon as they said that, I was like, I bet this team is going to perform really well.
HOLMES: 'Cause that's stretching. It's balance. It's understanding the momentum of your body and the ability of your body to bend and shift your center of gravity. And I was like, I bet that team's going to do very well. And, spoiler alert, they did very well.
THOMPSON: Yeah. It's also like they tap into one of the most underrated skills in so many reality competitions. They're calm.
HOLMES: It's true.
THOMPSON: And that is so incredibly important. There are several points where you will get a plucky underdog, where you're like, that person should just fall in so their rest of their team can go faster.
THOMPSON: And people will surprise you. People will surprise you with how quickly they fall in. People will surprise you with how far they get. People will occasionally surprise you by just biffing the jump from one thing to another thing that's, like, two feet away. And they'll just kind of slip and fall in.
THOMPSON: I like the fact that some of these outcomes are surprising.
HOLMES: Sometimes you'll see them kind of warming up for a jump, and they'll be like, oh, can I do it? Can I get over there? And they'll do it, and then it doesn't look that hard. And it's - it doesn't look like they had that difficult of a time with that. And you'll be like, oh, see, that wasn't as bad as you think, which is how I like to hope that the world will work for all of us...
HOWARD: I wanted to touch on something that you said, Linda. I think you made a great point because the show - when I first saw it, I thought the show is inconsequential and delightful all at the same time. And I think that that's a balance that's kind of interesting. It's not a show that I feel like I ever need to watch, but it is something that I would want to watch, you know? Like, I feel like you might want to watch this if you've had a hard day or, like, a particularly stressful week.
HOWARD: For me personally, with a lot of the stuff going on in the news and in the world, it's really intense right now. But I know, for me at least, it's easy to feel kind of guilty, right? You get stressed out with all the stuff going on, and you want to take a break, and it's - and you want to unplug. Sometimes you just have to watch something that's kind of dumb just to recharge and to be able to take on the real world. And I feel like this show is a nice way to unwind for even just a moment.
HOLMES: Yeah, I agree.
HOWARD: It's important to say rest, relaxation and dumb television is - it's not a distraction from change. It's part of recharging. It's part of the fuel that can help you keep going. And that might be a little heavy for a show like the "Floor Is Lava." That might be a heavy take. But, like, it's something that I found was, like, really important. It's a show that is so silly and so dumb that I want to - it's good to give myself permission to watch it.
HOLMES: Yeah. And I think the other thing about it is it is silly and dumb, but part of the reason why it hits that sweet spot for me is that it doesn't feel mean to me at all.
HOLMES: It feels like the show is rooting for everybody to make it. Like, the show isn't putting somebody up there and being like, oh, look at this guy's butt and all that stuff, which sometimes "Wipeout" had some of that. Like...
HOWARD: That's right.
HOLMES: And I do feel like this show genuinely wants to see everyone succeed. And if it sort of turns on anyone or teases anyone, it's more going to be because of their attitude or kind of like - you know, that there's a little bit of - the most confident people - sometimes there's a little bit of like, oh, that guy shouldn't have been so confident. And I think that's part of what makes it fit that.
THOMPSON: Do you guys remember at the - all the way back in March of 2020, five or six years ago...
THOMPSON: ...When all of the quarantining began, and collectively, as a people, everybody kind of decided to watch "Tiger King"? This is what we should have had in March that I'm so glad we have in July.
HOLMES: Agree completely.
HOWARD: I also think, in kind of the same vein, it's the perfect kind of quarantine substitute for normal sports.
HOWARD: I mean, just when you watch the show - you watch most other sports, and there's a huge crowd. There's not a huge crowd gathered. Even the contestants are almost always six feet apart from each other. I think the only thing that they're missing for a perfect quarantine score is a mask.
HOLMES: Yeah. It's true.
HOWARD: But, like, I mean, it's a great substitute for sports, I think. And every match is team human vs. team lava. And sometimes you root for team human and sometimes, honestly, you root for team lava.
HOLMES: Well, we want to know what you think about "Floor Is Lava." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. I'm Linda Holmes. Thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, and we'll see you all tomorrow.
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