My love for The Great British Bake-Off is well-documented. I’m thoroughly entranced by its simplicity; its quaint, tented charm; and the way it gently ignores all of the cliches of reality TV. There are no confessional interviews to explain every detail, no cymbal crashes to highlight every error.
In the three years since I started watching GBBO, I’ve been waiting for an American version. Not one that swaps out British contestants and comedians for Americans—which ABC’s Great American Baking Show does quite well—but a competition that finds its own way to dispense with the usual reality TV chicanery and phony, hyperbolic stakes, and just has supportive, enjoyable fun.
That show is Netflix’s Nailed It, which is easily the best new competition of the year, and perhaps of the past few years.
It’s a baking competition where three amateur bakers try to reproduce extraordinarily crafted baked goods, the kind with intricate decorations and fondant sculpted into tiny, chalky dioramas. The contestants make two such attempts, first on something small and then on something impossibly big and detailed, and the person who comes closest in the final round wins $10,000.
Nailed It was released less than a month ago, and it already has a devoted following. The description—”Home bakers with a terrible track record take a crack at re-creating edible masterpieces for a $10000 prize. It’s part reality contest, part hot mess.”—didn’t quite sell me on it enough to watch immediately, though.
What I discovered when I did watch was that the summary has a slightly nastier tone than the actual series. In its six short episodes (more are coming this year), it’s established itself as a joyful ride that has a simple, uber-American idea at its core.
That message, which drips from every part of this uncooled cake, is this: Fuck it, let’s just have fun.
From the witty chyron descriptions under the judges’ names to the contestants who try these absurd challenges anyway even though they know they’ll probably fail, every part of the show has just thrown its butter-covered hands in the air and said, Fuck it!
Magical Elves, the production company that created the modern talent competition with Project Runway and still produces Top Chef, has successfully stretched out its producing arms and pushed down the walls of traditional cooking shows. That gives themselves room to breathe and acknowledge not just the absurdity of this particular competition, but also of what happens in the production of a show. Down comes the fourth wall, revealing the teleprompter (when a guest judge misses her line); there’s a camera operator as contestants race by to the pantry; or here’s AD Wes, summoned by host Nicole Byer, who moves things around the stage and gets gently teased.
In episode one, guest judge and cake legend Sylvia Weinstock is so bored she starts wandering around, and ends up in the pantry—and all of this ends up on the episode.
She helps herself to some licorice, and then notices the stacks of cookware. “These pots are fabulous. What brand is this?” she asks no one in particular. She eventually makes it back to the judges table with the pan, and says, “I am taking this. I want a whole set. If you steal, you steal big.”
That’s when the show completely won me over. Not because of an entertaining woman in fabulous glasses who should have her own show, but because Nailed It was willing to acknowledge that watching people bake for hours can be tedious, and was willing to let her wander, and willing to show us, too.
Nicole Byer has Nailed It as a relaxed, joyful host
Episodes of Nailed it are about 10 minutes shorter than the 44 minutes or so we’d get from an hour-long cable competition, but the 35 minutes breeze by in two challenges. No one is eliminated, and the person who does the worst actually gets a quirky advantage in round two.
GBBO has its moments of humor, but is mostly charming and warm. Nailed It is just funny, ranging from jokey to outright farce. Even though we know the end product is probably going to be a wreck, the reveals never fail to make me laugh.
The critically important connection between all this is host Nicole Byer. She handles the standard hosting parts with ease, but it’s what she does with them and beside them that transcends typical hosting. Unlike other hosts, she’s not being wedged into a hosting role so tightly you might not even recognize that they’re an actor from a movie. She’s more like Anderson Cooper hanging out with The Mole contestants: just being herself despite this weird context.
Nicole doesn’t treat everything as a joke, but jokes about almost every thing. She’s having a great time—laughing at the absurdity, apologizing for laughing at what the contestants created—and invites us to join her. She’s also not cruel, often apologizing for laughing, even when the contestant is laughing, too.
This is the perfect fit for her humor, personality, and improvisation skills. I want Nicole Byer to host every show, or at least to win an Emmy for this one.
At the judges’ table, Nicole is joined by Jacques “Mr. Chocolate” Torres, a permanent judge who brings the show its culinary gravitas. Yet although he knows his stuff, he’s often as playful as Nicole. More importantly, the humor in their interaction isn’t from her mocking him or his failure to get the jokes. He’s a partner in the absurdity, like when he teaches Nicole how to use culinary airbrushes, which apparently get cleaned with vodka, which he sprays into Nicole’s mouth.
Nailed It might owe something to Guy’s Grocery Games, which has the most playful sensibility of any Food Network competition, but Guy Fieri’s show still adheres to the conventions established by the network for its studio-based competitions.
Despite giving a solid middle finger to the pomposity and self-importance of the typical American cooking competition, Nailed It is also surprisingly educational. Split screens show viewers how to do something the right way versus what the contestant is attempting, and Jacques has thoughts and advice that ultimately would be a lot more helpful if he shared it with the contestants 15 feet away from him instead of just with Nicole and all of us.
The show does give him that opportunity: In round two, each contestant can get help for three minutes from one of the judges. Contestants also get recipes, though their tasks are so demanding this hardly seems like help.
Because they have so much to do, and because they’re trying to reproduce the work of master bakers and decorators, they have essentially impossible tasks. The show and its judges give them credit, though, for all that they do accomplish, whether that’s baking a decent cake or having all the elements in a puddle instead of a cake.
Yet these aren’t trophies for lack of effort. It’s an acknowledgement of effort: You tried, you failed, we all had fun watching you because we know we couldn’t do it better. This is not a show that asks the audience to feel superior to the contestants—which what other cooking competitions, even Top Chef, often do, by pointing out dumb mistakes that we would never, ever make from the safety of our couches.
And that’s what makes Nailed It so delightful. Its thesis was summarized perfectly by Sylvia Weinstock, in something she said—spontaneously, it seemed—during judging in episode one. Commenting on a mess of a reproduction of her own cake, she said,
“I want to give you credit for having courage and guts for doing this, because it’s something you’ve never done before, and I think that is remarkable.”
It is remarkable, and even more remarkable that the show celebrates this attempt and failure, and is never condescending, just honest and accepting of the fact that mediocrity may be as good as it gets.
The contestants know they can’t do this, but they try anyway. Their creations are messy and sometimes taste good and sometimes look better than expected.
That is why Nailed It is the perfect baking competition for these United States of America: a country that’s one giant experiment that is sometimes fucked up beyond all recognition, and has no hope of perfection. But we go out there and try anyway, even when the odds are against us, and find moments to laugh even when the cake is sliding off the table.