I’ve been waiting for four years for a Christmas reality competition to fill the empty stocking that was once filled by the one-season-only Santas in the Barn.
Sure, there’s an abundance of holiday baking competitions, including ABC’s The Great American Baking Show and every show on Food Network, which all blend together.
This year, Making It! season two is airing entirely in December. But there still hasn’t been anything quite like Santas in the Barn, which was a brand-new competition soaked in holiday mirth.
This year, Freeform has brought us a gift: Wrap Battle, which is a merry, pun-filled holiday gift wrapping competition. While it may have some rough edges and torn corners, there’s enough holiday joy to fully appreciate the gift it’s giving us.
The first episode opens with host/judge Sheryl Underwood reading a faux holiday story to fellow judges Carson Kressley and Wanda Wen, as the contestants travel to the studio (or just around the parking lot?) in a decorated party bus.
It’s a fun start—not as strong a tonal choice as the beginning of Holey Moley—but it works to establish Wrap Battle as leading with fun and Christmas cheer.
The contestants have abundant skills and personality to spare. Many of them have wrapped themselves spectacularly, in ostentatious clothing or coiffures.
They’re not all strictly gift wrappers. Piper is a paper artist, while Parker is an insurance agent. Anthony Anderson designs jewelry for drag queens, or as he says on his web site, he’s “marrying goldsmithing tradition with the craft of queer culture.”
They’re also ready with quips, eye-rolls, and other fun lines. Event coordinator Joe declares “kids are super-basic: no taste.”
One of the contestants may be familiar. PTA president Kimberly Kennedy won a CBS reality show 14 years ago: Wickedly Perfect, a competition between “people with a creative knack for the finer things in life in a no-holds-barred competition to crown the country’s new authority on at-home living” that was hosted by Joan Lunden (!) and judged by Bobby Flay and Candace Bushnel (!!).
Their varied experiences translate well to wrapping in creative and visually interesting ways, and basically no one approaches a challenge similarly.
It’s the creative process on display, just like on Project Runway or Skin Wars, and I love watching how people tackle a challenge, and being awed by what they produce.
The first challenge of the first episode asks the contestants to wrap, well, nothing, an empty box, and occasionally the show feels that way: despite the striking workroom set by Scott Storey and plentiful puns on the outside, there’s no weight to it.
There’s also just something a little awkward about some of the transitions and cuts to commercial, and the way the music alternates between sparkling Christmas songs and stock reality competition score.
But by the second episode—two premiered back-to-back; they’re both on Freeform’s site—it’s more assured. The judging, though, still needs work.
Wrap Battle’s judges are funny but their decisions aren’t
More problematic for a competition series is the judging, which hasn’t yet locked into criteria that make clear sense. One second Sheryl and Carson are mocking a contestant, Olga, for wrapping a giant cactus in green fabric, and the next Olga is in the top three.
The first elimination challenge asked the contestants to wrap large, unwieldy items, like a lawn mower and a teddy bear, but without boxes and without changing the shape of the item. Yet Parker gets dinged by the judges for not just wrapping an entire foosball table’s base and thus concealing its legs.
Both of the first two eliminations are baffling—though the second is less a “Christmas miracle,” as the safe contestant says, than it is an attempt to stuff the other contestants’ socks with coal to make them upset.
It works: As the other contestants realize what’s happened, several break down crying, and all of this is scored to a big, brass instrument-heavy version of “Deck the Halls.” I can see how this was an attempt at humor, but it doesn’t work.
Deck the halls with production meddling, fa la la la la, la la la la! Everyone’s sad except the producers! Fa la la la la, la la la la!
What they lack in coherence and/or agency, the judges have in puns and witty observations, like Carson talking about a giant teddy bear that’s been bent over a workstation: “Her flaccid bear looks like a crime scene,” he says.
There’s also an extended discussion of how a skein of yarn attached to a bench press looks like a sex toy. “That almost looks like an old-fashioned Amish pleasuring device,” Carson says.
“Happy holidays!” Cheryl Underwood adds, and then joins in: “If you don’t like to work out, you can work somebody out on that little station right there. I have ideas: 50 Shades of Christmas!“
The challenges so far have been inventive, and the second episode takes the contestants outside of the workroom to wrap in the real world, which is a good test of their skills.
It’s also a chance to have them work in teams, every reality show’s favorite way to unsettle its contestants. That allows Olga to emerge as a bit of a villain and for things to get so tense that Eddie declares, “It’s a wrap battle, not a topper battle!”
But things cool down quickly and return to fun, at least until the judges make a familiar frustrating choice, like when Top Chef’s judges send home the front-of-house person during Restaurant Wars.
Had the second episode not taken that turn, I would have had fewer complaints, I think, and these are a surprising number of complaints for a show that I rather enjoyed, and look forward to seeing more of.
When you open gifts and there’s something unexpected or even unpleasant inside, you’re supposed to express gratitude. So I’ll say thanks: I am truly grateful for Wrap Battle for reviving the non-baking Christmastime competition reality show, and I hope it keeps giving—and improving—for years to come.