I’ve never been much of a sports fan. Sure, I love enthusiastically yelling, drinking outside, and dressing to a theme as much as the next person. I watch the Super Bowl and attend a few Minor League baseball games each year. But regularly watching games on TV has never appealed to me. The closest I’ve come to getting swept up in sports mania is during the Olympics, thanks in large part to the captivating pageantry of the opening and closing ceremonies, combined with the novelty of watching athletes at the top of their game in sports I’d never heard of. (Looking at you, race walking.)
But with the 2020 Olympic Games postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve found that another form of sports entertainment is giving me everything I want from the Olympics and more. I’m talking, of course, about summer reality competition shows.
As I wrote in our summer preview package, summer is typically the time when networks release their wildest, fluffiest, popcorn-iest reality programming. And in recent years, the subgenre of gimmicky competition shows has seen a huge boom. From American Ninja Warrior to Wipeout, audiences love watching people make their way through ridiculously challenging (or just plain ridiculous) obstacle courses.
Much like the Olympics — and competitive sports in general — the joy of these types of shows comes from a combination of spectacle and athleticism. But where the Olympics only feature a dash of absurdity (again, have you seen what race walking looks like?) the best reality competition shows lean into their ridiculousness. Without an International Olympic Committee regulating rules and eligibility requirements, networks are free to get completely bonkers with these games, making them more fun to watch than any other competitive sport on television.
This summer, two shows have figured out that formula: Fox’s Ultimate Tag and Netflix’s The Floor Is Lava. Both shows turn familiar childhood games into elaborate obstacle-course-based competitions. In Ultimate Tag, three men and three women are chased around obstacle courses by “Professional Taggers,” cast members with WWE-style identities like “Banshee” or “Dynamite.” The Floor Is Lava tasks teams of three with making their way across a room flooded with faux-lava by moving across floating objects. (“The Planetarium” is full of planets and rocket ships, the bedroom set features a spinning bed, etc.)
While those premises are, of course, patently absurd, they’re a delight to watch because the contestants, hosts, and other cast members take the competition seriously even as they’re leaning into the absurdity. Most of the Pro Taggers on Ultimate Tag are professional athletes, including parkour experts and track stars. It’s genuinely impressive to watch them do stunts — backflipping off obstacles, for example.
And it’s genuinely delightful that they’re staying in character at the same time. The Floor Is Lava contestants all play into the fiction that the floor is literally molten rock that will kill them. Some go so far as to pretend to be burned when the orange mixture splashes up on them. The show also takes care not to show the fallen contestants emerging from the pool of dyed liquid that’s passing for lava. In the fiction of The Floor Is Lava, they’re gone forever. This steadfast commitment to such silly premises is part of what makes The Floor Is Lava and Ultimate Tag such compelling shows.
With professional sports, much of the fun comes from rooting for a specific team or player. That’s also the case with this kind of competition show. The most charismatic players immediately stand out, and it’s fun to cheer them on. But while it’s exciting to see your favorite contestants win, it isn’t devastating to see them lose. In the fourth episode of Ultimate Tag, the best episode I’ve seen yet, competitor Chekesha taunts the Pro Tagger pursuing her, pausing to “take a break” while on the other side of an obstacle from her. While Chekesha ultimately didn’t win, she was by far the most fun to watch on that episode, because she brought so much playfulness to what’s ultimately a very silly game.
The Floor Is Lava features teams of three, and it’s even more fun to listen to their banter on the course than it is to watch them leap and climb over obstacles. In episode 3, a team of former college roommates, Jordan, Jerrold, and LaJuan, are the most charming competitors I’ve seen yet. Upon seeing a table shaped like the earth, Jordan jokes, “I told y’all the earth was flat!” Later, Jordan encourages LaJuan by telling him to jump “for Nipsey,” invoking the rapper Nipsey Hussle, who was fatally shot in 2019. LaJuan responds by shouting “The marathon continues!” (a reference to Hussle’s 2011 mixtape) before making an impressive leap. Their team did end up winning the $10,000 prize, and I cheered like my hockey team had won the Stanley Cup.
Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic games, said, “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.” That can just as easily be said about Ultimate Tag, The Floor Is Lava, or any of the countless other competition shows flooding the airwaves (or, more accurately, streaming-service platforms) this summer. The important thing is taking part in something so joyously absurd.
Games are supposed to be fun to play! Watching contestants on Ultimate Tag and The Floor Is Lava embrace that sense of play is infectious, something I can’t say about professional sports. I’ve never watched a basketball game and thought, “I’d love to get out there and shoot a few hoops with Kyrie,” but watching The Floor Is Lava and Ultimate Tag does make me want to try my hand at the course. Why? The contestants look like they’re having a blast.