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Which Sports-Adjacent Physical Challenge TV Show Is Right For You?

An unusually operatic still image from Netflix's "Floor Is Lava"
Screenshot: Netflix

We all remember where we were when we learned that Ultimate Slip ’N Slide would not make it to series at NBC for diarrhea-related reasons. The development process in the increasingly crowded TV space is difficult enough for a new show when everything goes right; launching a title most viewers first heard about after the set was reported to have been the epicenter of a robust diarrhea outbreak was, it seems, somehow even more challenging than it sounds. But for those bereft at the loss of a televised reality competition played out on (giardia-contaminated) water slides, I have good news: TV is absolutely lousy with goofily sports-adjacent physical challenge shows right now. 

TV producers are always looking for series concepts that will potentially appeal to all members of a household, from 8 to 88, and also that don’t require expenditures on such frills as actors, writers, wardrobe, CGI, or sets that need to be dressed more than once. For a while, the vogue was unscripted strategic competitions that tried to draft off the success of Survivor and The Amazing Race. Then American Idol begat performance shows like Dancing With The Stars, The Masked Singer, and America’s Got Talent. All of these are still with us, but it’s hard not to feel like they’re out of surprises at this point.

Cue the next trend! The success of ABC’s Holey Moley inspired a wave of sports-meets-pratfalls copycat shows that’s distinct from the class of legitimately virtuosic athletic shows—like American Ninja Warrior and The Titan Games—that are really only for people who own gyms. Now that Netflix’s Floor Is Lava has also taken off, even more are coming. Next month, The CW revives Nickelodeon’s Legends Of The Hidden Temple, for adult players. Fox will soon bring you a life-sized Mouse Trap. No one would probably go so far as to suggest that these—and their precedents, listed below—are evidence that the culture has steered entirely into the skid and away from reason’s light. That said, it is true that the Brobdingnagian scale of these shows’ set pieces and the requirement that contestants launch themselves on and off them as recklessly as possible does suggest that they’re unwittingly acting on the whims of a trickster god just offscreen, particularly when one of them is never even going to air because it gave a whole production the scoots.

But that’s heavier than any of this deserves. The more salient question is which of these not-quite-sports shows is right for you. This guide, which has been arranged by premiere date—and, purely by happenstance, also happens to feature the indisputably best one first—has been designed to help you weigh your options before you make this important decision.

Holey Moley (ABC, 2019-)

Holey Moley engaging in outreach to the furry community.
  • Premise
    • Executive producer Steph Curry has created an “extreme” miniature golf course, where classic mini-golf hazards—spinning windmills, animatronic animals—have been rendered on a gigantic scale. Each episode winnows a field of eight mini-golfers down to one winner; in the season finale, those winners all compete against each other in a round robin, with the ultimate victor taking home $250,000.
  • Quality Of Host(s)
    • Curry himself was a “feature” of one hole in the show’s first season; probably partly because of COVID restrictions in subsequent seasons and partly because reading wisecracks is not among Curry’s many talents, he now appears only in pre-taped segments … where he is still not great. Fortunately, his deficits as an on-camera personality are easy to overlook given the show’s actual hosts: actor/comic/improviser Rob Riggle and former Monday Night Football enthuser Joe Tessitore. Having watched Riggle since he was a regular player at the UCB Theatre’s weekly improv show ASSSSCAT, I expected him to be not just funny but quick, and to heighten the absurdity of an already-absurd game premise; what I did not expect was for Tessitore to meet Riggle’s energy and transcend what was, given his background, probably conceived as a flatter straight-man role. I won’t repeat the praise I showered over them last summer, but when you’ve watched as many of these shows as I have, the magic these two bring to the proceedings feels all the more impressive for its rarity: They really seem like they are having fun, not just with the show but with each other. (Holey Moley also features The Real’s Jeannie Mai, sparingly, as a sideline reporter, but if she disappeared from the proceedings between seasons, no one would notice.)
    • Rating: 10
  • Skill Required
    • Amid all the bombast of the holes’ construction, the game is still recognizably miniature golf and requires all the same skills: In order to progress, contestants need to have a solid short game and a firm grasp of geometry, so that they can effectively bounce their balls off speed bumps or curbs. There’s a reason so many contestants have been recruited from pro golf circles.
    • Rating: 8
  • Physical Discomfort
    • If you know anything about Holey Moley, it’s probably that people are constantly eating shit. Over the course of its three seasons, more and more of the holes have added water features into which contestants may simply trip or be propelled at high velocity, and while the show shoots in the greater Los Angeles area, it does so at night, in wintertime, and it’s definitely cold. Also: The hole may be surrounded by water if you’re lucky; as of this season, two holes require golfers to avoid falling in pits of “mud” which, just judging by their reactions, also has a strong odor. If you end up in the drink, it’s a stroke penalty, and you’ll be visibly shivering when you’re lining up your shot. It all looks extremely unpleasant, and I love it.
    • Rating: 8
  • Entertainment Value Of Contestant Injuries
    • I’ve seen people wipe out and get minor cuts and scrapes, but nothing too nasty. As violent as it may look when a player runs at full speed into a giant bobbing trout, for example, those trout appear to be well-padded with foam rubber, and the viewer may feel very comfortable laughing at golfers’ slapstick pain.
    • Rating: 9
  • Is It Coming Back?
  • Where To Watch

Ultimate Tag (Fox, 2020)

Perhaps this is too many Watts for one television program.
  • Premise
    • You know tag? Schoolyard game where one kid is “it” and has to run around trying to touch another kid, making them it? This is that but for people who do Crossfit. Contestants play in sex-segregated rounds, with each victorious man and woman being awarded $10,000.
  • Quality Of Host(s)
    • It’s hard to imagine that anyone watched the Watt brothers of NFL fame in their ads for Subway and thought they needed a larger platform for their comedy stylings, but here is proof that someone did. Derek, J.J., and T.J. offering commentary from the sidelines would be fine if they were clever or witty, but since they’re not, their participation in the project is a constant irritant. We don’t need anyone to “call” this game! It’s tag.
    • Rating: 1
  • Skill Required
    • Contestants are set loose in a variety of different courses and pursued by the show’s full-time Taggers, who naturally know the landscape better than people who’ve just shown up for the day. So in addition to being fast, there’s a strategic element to each different tag game: when to go over or under an obstacle, when and where to accept a short-term setback for a greater eventual advantage, and so on. The contestants are all such serious, accomplished athletes that $10,000 doesn’t really seem like a big enough prize.
    • Rating: 7
  • Physical Discomfort
    • The contestants get pretty gassed through multiple rounds, but they’re as well-protected with knee pads and the like as you would expect in a parkour-inflected competition, and in that the Taggers are only trying to pull flags off the players, it’s not even a contact sport. Everyone’s okay.
    • Rating: 4
  • Entertainment Value Of Contestant Injuries
    • The most you’re going to see in a typical episode is a lot of panting.
    • Rating: 2
  • Is It Coming Back?
    • As of this writing, its fate is still undetermined; there’s not really any way to shoot it without having a bunch of randos breathing vigorously on each other, so it may just be on hiatus until COVID is less of a consideration. If you’re very eager for more, however, Australia and Russia made their own versions of the format, and you can try to (pauses, as if to apologize) run those down. 
  • Where To Watch

Floor Is Lava (Netflix, 2020-)

All Netflix programming is lit like this.
  • Premise
    • I remember the heady days of summer 2020, when everyone was laughing at the mere idea of Ultimate Tag. “What’s next?” some wondered (at me, on Twitter). “A TV version of ‘The Floor Is Lava’?” It was my great joy to tell them that, yes, that in fact was next, on Netflix. Teams of three people with some pre-existing relationship are confronted by a weird room in which the floor is— well, not lava, but something orange and viscous; its precise recipe hasn’t been publicly disclosed. Contestants have to work together to get from one end of the room to the other, using the room’s furniture as ingeniously as possible. If one of them is “consumed” by the “lava,” they can still potentially win, since they earn a point for each team member who makes it through. Two other teams then take their turns following them through the course. Whichever team finishes with the most points wins $10,000. (In case of a tie, the fastest team takes it.)
  • Quality Of Host(s)
    • Journeyman TV presenter Rutledge Wood is clearly a pro, and if this project diverges from others on his CV—which tend to revolve around either cars or Southern cuisine—he seems perfectly comfortable treating this very silly game as seriously as is necessary. He spends most of each episode offscreen, commentating in voiceover as the team members go through the course in what appears to be real time, and since “Hey, try going that way”/“Okay I will” is not exactly scintillating conversation to observe, Wood’s contributions are actually indispensable, particularly by the time you’re watching a THIRD set of goobers ford the room in more or less the same way you just watched their opponents attempt.
    • Rating: 6
  • Skill Required
    • Although the game is physical—players have to climb, crawl, jump, and swing through the game room—the level of difficulty is commensurate with what anyone may have done on a playground jungle gym during a primary-school recess. For players, some facility with puzzle- and problem-solving is much more important.
    • Rating: 4
  • Physical Discomfort
    • While there is a chance a contestant may wreck his junk leaping onto a (moderately padded) pyramid, by far the most consistent threat is, yes, falling into the lava. Just because it isn’t hot doesn’t mean it’s pleasant to be immersed in; from what has been reported, it’s greasy, and I would assume any item of clothing that comes in contact with it would be traffic-cone orange forever.
    • Rating: 6
  • Entertainment Value Of Contestant Injuries
    • From what the viewer can tell, the tank in which the show is shot is quite deep, and no one falls into it from very high up, which means it’s doubtful that anyone could possibly get badly hurt. The entertainment value derives from how much contestants are, one assumes, directed to be really extra when they fall: they scream, their teammates scream, they try to clamber up onto fixed room furniture that’s too slick to allow for purchase and then descend into the murk, never to be seen again unless their “surviving” teammates win, whereupon the lava-dipped player joins them to accept their trophy from Wood. The decision not to show the fallen player shamefacedly climbing out while coated in goop is an absolutely integral choice on producers’ part. Of course we know it’s not real lava, but those who touch it sure are really dead as far as the game is concerned! 
    • Rating: 6
  • Is It Coming Back?
  • Where To Watch

Cannonball (USA, 2020)

High-concept stuff.
  • Premise
    • At a lake somewhere in southern California, producers have erected various devices and machines. Players get onto or into them and then are launched into the lake; success is measured in different ways depending on the round, but usually the goal is to achieve the greatest distance possible. The four best players end up in the final, which involves a gigantic water slide, with the winner awarded $10,000.
  • Quality Of Host(s)
    • It made sense for USA to install Mike “The Miz” Mizanin when it imported this format from the UK. Mizanin is already a mainstay at the network, not only on its wrestling shows—he’s been a WWE star since the mid-’00s—but also on his own reality sitcom, Miz & Mrs. I can imagine a version of this show where Mizanin gets closer to what Tessitore and Riggle bring to Holey Moley, but it would require his having been paired with someone who has more to offer than ex-106 & Park host Rocsi Diaz. As it is, she is very pretty and very dull; Mizanin does what he can, but he might as well be alone.
    • Rating: 4
  • Skill Required
    • I assume contestants for this show were rounded up at Universal Citywalk Hollywood, because all that is really required of them is the ability to wear a swimsuit and a willingness to let gravity have its way with them. None of the rounds seems very hard. They all seem like they’re a lot of fun. 
    • Rating: 1
  • Physical Discomfort
    • Anyone who’s done the most extreme attraction at their local water park has probably been in more physical danger than anyone on Cannonball; they do strike the lake at a high speed, but it seems pretty deep. Other than getting water up their noses, everyone seems okay.
    • Rating: 4
  • Entertainment Value Of Contestant Injuries
    • After the first few, all the big splashes kind of blend into each other. Speaking of which, not one of the games actually involves a contestant doing a cannonball? False advertising! 
    • Rating: 3
  • Is It Coming Back?
  • Where To Watch

Wipeout (TNT, 2021-)

  • Premise
    • You know the premise from its first iteration, which ran for seven seasons on ABC: Brave yet foolhardy contestants attempt to make it through an obstacle course in which giant red balls are a trademark feature, to win $25,000.
  • Quality Of Host(s)
    • This is tough, because I like both of them in other contexts. And on paper, pairing Nicole Byer (comedy, Nailed It) and John Cena (pro wrestling, the Fast Cinematic Universe) sure seems like a smart move. They’re funny and charming and should be perfectly capable of mocking the ill-starred boobs before them. But it doesn’t work. Unlike Riggle and Tessitore on Holey Moley, I don’t know for sure that Cena and Byer aren’t present on set while shooting is happening, but it sure seems like they aren’t, nor that they’re encouraged to be spontaneous in their comments on the craziness they see either way. Both seem extremely constrained, or at least determined to stick to their scripts, much to the show’s detriment.
    • Rating: 3
  • Skill Required
    • The contestants who have any chance of success have to evince some physical agility and strength, but much like Cannonball, this is 90 percent gravity.
    • Rating: 5
  • Physical Discomfort
    • Everything that strikes the players, or that they strike at a fairly high speed, looks like hard rubber. One of the great gifts of graduating middle school was that there was no longer any need to be scared of dodgeballs, and yet these people propel themselves straight at huge ones, on purpose!
    • Rating: 8
  • Entertainment Value Of Contestant Injuries
    • Here’s where Wipeout gets dicey, because: Last year, a contestant named Michael Paredes died shortly after shooting an episode of the show. An autopsy indicated that his death was the result of a pre-existing cardiac condition and not from injuries sustained on set. Still, it’s hard not to have that in the back of your mind when the show wants you to chortle at someone getting their spine folded in half.
    • Rating: 2
  • Is It Coming Back?
  • Where To Watch

The Cube (TBS, 2021-)

  • Premise
    • In yet another American remake of a British format, a team of two contestants take on a series of mini-games played inside the titular Cube—sometimes individually, sometimes cooperatively. If they can win seven games with the nine “lives” they are granted, they win $25,000. As on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, they can tap out at earlier points if they wish and take whatever money they’ve already accumulated, but once they resolve to play the next game, they don’t leave the Cube until they’ve either successfully completed it, or exhausted all their lives.  
  • Quality Of Host(s)
    • Dwyane Wade is very attractive, affable, and tall, but the nature of the game means that the action is inherently a bit static, and he is not experienced enough as a broadcaster to fill the silences in ways that both make the tense contestants feel at ease and engage the home viewer. A Wayne Brady type—the literal Wayne Brady The Person was the only element that made Fox’s abysmal Game Of Talents marginally endurable earlier this year—or even Tom Bergeron, who took all the joy of Dancing With The Stars with him when he got fired, could have made all the difference here. On top of all this, the host is also expected to step in and try to complete a mini-game on behalf of a frustrated contestant—an advantage granted to each team, which they may only use once in their time on the show—which I guess is why they got a recently retired elite athlete to serve as host. It’s not a great idea, but it conceivably could have worked under different circumstances. Wade is an EP, so maybe have him in the wings and trot him out as requested while a real presenter hosts, or at least give him a co-host to interact with? Anyway, they didn’t do any of that.
    • Rating: 3
  • Skill Required
    • The games don’t require a lot of athleticism; instead, they test such qualities as dexterity, speed, memory, or balance. If you watched clips of the British version at home—and some of the teams in the American version have said that they did—you could practice and hone some of these skills, but generally these abilities are either already present in a contestant, or not.
    • Rating: 7
  • Physical Discomfort
    • If you spent a day marathoning, say, Wipeout, The Cube might be an agreeable way to come down. Instead of replicating the sensation of spectating at a gladiatorial battle, like most of these other games, The Cube is quietly tense. Contestants here aren’t scared of running the wrong way on a treadmill and landing face-first in an enormous wedding band, as on Holey Moley; mostly they’re on edge about beating the clock. In that sense it’s all less like sports and more like work.
    • Rating: 2
  • Entertainment Value Of Contestant Injuries
    • Other than one game where a player had to try to walk from one wall of the Cube to another, blindfolded, without striking any of the foam pillars irregularly arranged on the floor, I can’t recall any games in which contestants even made physical contact with an object. The Cube is about as dangerous as a kids’ gymnastic facility.
    • Rating: 7
  • Is It Coming Back?
  • Where To Watch

Frogger (Peacock, 2021-)

  • Premise
    • The beloved ’80s video game is reimagined here as a physical obstacle course in which players must leap onto footholds recognizable from the source material—lily pads, crocodiles, turtles, logs, and so on. If they fail in their crossing, falling into the pool in which all these objects reside, it’s okay: as in a video game, they each get three lives to attempt it. Three pairs of contestants go head to head, with each pair fording the same one of three different courses per episode; whichever contestant gets the furthest on each course progresses to the timed Boss Toad round, the winner of which gets $10,000. Episode winners also compete in the season finale champions’ tournament, where the victor takes home $100,000.
  • Quality Of Host(s)
    • The shamelessness that underlies the choice to make your hosting team one sports broadcaster (NFL Network’s Kyle Brandt) and one comic actor (Damon Wayans Jr.)—that is, to do exactly what Holey Moley did—is authentically shocking to behold. Even more shocking is that this particular match-up ever survived a chemistry read, because they have none. Brandt seems to be trying to create a rapport primarily by calling Wayans “Wayans” in every line he speaks. For his part, Wayans seems so focused on staying upbeat that he doesn’t evince any personality at all. Worst of all, it seems as though the two of them are not present on set when contestants are going through the course, which means their commentary sounds like they’re reacting to the same edited footage the viewer is watching. If they are on set—and they actually may be, as there are moments when they seem like they’re speaking directly to contestants, although they could just as easily have re-recorded lines originally uttered by any crew member on the day—then they’re even worse at banter than I would have ever thought possible.
    • Rating: 2
  • Skill Required
    • I’ll just say it: These courses are too hard. The very first episode starts on one called Ribbit River, which fells both contestants when—and this is real—they try to leap onto the very first obstacle, since it (a) is fixed in a whooshing waterfall and (b) they’re being pelted by water cannons while they try to jump and then cling onto it. In that same episode, across six attempts only one contestant even completes a course, and that contestant is a full-time fitness influencer. It’s only fun watching people fail if it seems like the odds aren’t stacked unreasonably against their success. Player 2 has even had the theoretically unfair advantage of watching Player 1’s run and learning from their mistakes. This is unlike the similar Floor Is Lava, where successive teams trying to cross the same room don’t get to watch their predecessors’ choices and errors. In actuality, that never seems to matter. TOO HARD!
    • Rating: 9
  • Physical Discomfort
    • Contestants are definitely going to fall in the water and then have to stand around in dripping activewear and squishy sneakers while they wait to go again. But the pool is inside, and doesn’t seem too cold. 
    • Rating: 3
  • Entertainment Value Of Contestant Injuries
    • All the obstacles contestants have to jump on are either naturally yielding or covered with lots of squishy foam rubber. Even if they land awkwardly or have to strain and scrabble to maintain their grip before continuing to the next obstacle, the worst injury anyone will probably suffer is public embarrassment.
    • Rating: 4
  • Is It Coming Back?
    • As of this post’s publication, the show has only been around for two weeks, but given that Peacock has relatively few original offerings at this point and is going to start bleeding subscribers who really only signed up to watch the Olympics, Frogger’s future seems bright.
  • Where To Watch