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There’s one great reason to watch Elf on the Shelf: Sweet Showdown

There’s one great reason to watch Elf on the Shelf: Sweet Showdown
An elf on Elf on the Shelf: Sweet Showdown watches the bakers with its creepy eyes (Photo by Food Network)

This time of year, I will wrap myself and my home in all the trappings and trimmings of secular Christmas joy. But you’ll never find one of those little Elf on the Shelf fuckers near me.

They’re not creepy AF because of the way parents move the elves every night, adding them to a creative scene, such as climbing a rock wall or going on a ride in the dryer.

That seems fun, though a lot of work! (To help beleaguered parents who’ve gotten themselves into this mess, the Internet offers ideas, such as Good Housekeeping’s list of “85 Easy & Funny” options.)

Instead, I’m unsettled by what those little elf bastards are up to: spying. Yes, this charming tradition that came from a self-published book and is now a global brand has a deeply disturbing message at its core.

Four dolls wearing red outfits and Santa hats posed on a red shelf
Elf on the Shelf dolls are everywhere on Food Network’s competition Elf on the Shelf: Sweet Showdown (Photo by Food Network)

An Elf on the Shelf is a registered trademark, a “Santa’s Scout Elf,” and its owner says their job is to “help Santa manage his nice list by taking note of a family’s Christmas adventures and reporting back to Santa at the North Pole nightly.”

Yes, kids are told that the elf leaves every night and goes to the North Pole to tell Santa everything it saw. So basically it’s a fictional Ring doorbell, trying to deter kids from doing bad things by telling them they’re being watched.

Those winter and holiday birds from Target? Cute! Little plastic spies with blue eyes? Fuck right off.

Critics have made this point. “I know a lot of families just see this as a fun thing, but it’s worth thinking about the messages it’s giving to children about surveillance by authorities. Personally, I consider success as a parent to be teaching my kids to do the right thing even when nobody is watching, whether they be from the North Pole or anywhere else,” the ACLU’s Jay Stanley told The New York Times.

But I don’t think you need to look beyond the elves’ parent company to be alarmed. The company offers suggestions for parents who failed to move the elf overnight about what to tell their kids, such as these two stories:

Your Scout Elf forgot their spot from yesterday! With so many things to remember to tell Santa, your elf got back to your home only to realize that they forgot all the spots they’ve chosen this season. That’s why they accidentally ended up in a place they’ve already been!

The spot has a great vantage point. When your Scout Elf was watching you yesterday, they couldn’t believe what a great view they had! That’s why they decided they needed another day to see you from this perfect vantage point.

I have another idea: Why not take the elf for a spin in the toilet, and let it drown? Or give it a ride in the shredder? You can also move the elf to the trash, or directly into a roaring fireplace.

An elf doll in a Christmas tree; it's wearing an all-red suit with its legs crossed and its hands on its knee
One of Elf on the Shelf: Sweet Showdown’s many elves watches the bakers (Photo by Food Network)

Elf on the Shelf: Sweet Showdown is, Food Network tells us, “produced in partnership with The Lumistella Company,” which has “a number of iconic Christmas brands” and “their global portfolio of intellectual property.” So yes, this is all just one big IP exercise, bah humbug.

There is a brief mention of the elves’ jobs. Host and judge Duff Goldman says, in a voice-over, that “the scout elves will be watching you closely throughout this competition, reporting back to Santa on your displays and your Christmas cheer.”

And in the show’s intro, Duff explains in narration that the elves “watch through the day; not a moment is missed.” Gross.

Mostly, though, Elf on the Shelf: Sweet Showdown is just Holiday Wars light: two-person teams (instead of three) creating smaller displays out of food in less time, using the Elf on the Shelf as a theme and a character in their final creation.

The show is so watered down that the first episode’s two challenges—create a shelf for the elf, and a scene inside a snow globe—don’t actually involve making the shelf or the snow globe. The lack of time shows in imperfect work.

Along the way, they’re asked to do a lot of cheesy overacting, and prompted to say things about the product to make sure the brand messaging is on-point, like some nonsense about not touching your elf after naming it.

The contestants do have to add little magical elements to their scenes. They’re creative and fun. The show is fine!

But so help me Santa, I cannot recall ever being this charmed by a reality TV show’s fake reaction shots.

Pairs of people in matching aprons react with delight as snow falls; the room is decorated with wreaths and small red dolls
The teams competing on Elf on the Shelf: Sweet Showdown are surrounded by elves (Photo by Food Network)

The choice made to edit Elf on the Shelf: Sweet Showdown (Food Network, Sundays at 8) with lots of elf reaction shots is simple but inspired: there are frequent cutaways to the elves, and they’re often chosen to match the content.

This is not new for reality TV; reaction shots are rarely actual reactions to what we’re just seeing. Any time someone turns their head on Holiday Baking Championship, it gets used to express shock and horror.

On Elf on the Shelf: Sweet Showdown, though, the reactions are from the elves. When the contestants clap and cheer, for example, it cuts to elves in celebratory poses.

When Cinthya Romriell tries to get chocolate out of a mold and says, “It’s not coming out” as she slams it against the station, and we cut to a quick zoom in on an elf that looks skeptical.

“I think it may have broken,” her teammate Blaque Shelton says. Cintya cries, “Oh no!” and we cut to an elf sitting inside a gold cup and wearing a reindeer headband that has its hands up over its head, as if it, too, was saying Oh no! Then to another elf, dangling by one arm, that’s covering its mouth with its other mittened hand in horror.

The elves bright faces and permament side eye makes for perfect reaction shots. They’re kinda cute and kinda shady.

Whoever decorated and posed the elves did a fantastic job, giving them personality, which is what I want in my inanimate spies.

The elf reaction shots are effectively a visual version of the sound effects and musical cues that tell us how to feel on reality TV shows, and perhaps I’ll tire of them. But they kept being funny in the first episode.

Three people sit on a giant green mantle over a fireplace
Elf on the Shelf: Sweet Showdown judges Ashley Holt, Duff Goldman, and Kardea Brown (Photo by Food Network)

To the plethora of elves, the producers have added some considerable Christmas cheese. Duff opens a tiny little door, and a small scroll comes flying out. “Elves!” he exclaims.

Judges Ashley Holt and Kardea Brown observe and chat with Duff on the mantle of a massive fireplace that’s at one end of the set, a fun visual.

Adding “magic” to the displays offers an opportunity for clever elements. And, at least so far, there are no clunky mid-challenge twists.

All of this makes this exercise in brand extension far more effective adaptation than the disaster that was Candy Land. If the elves weren’t designed as little agents of reconnaissance, it might just be downright cute. Being watched all day isn’t cute, but the editing here sure is, and it will keep me watching.

Elf on the Shelf: Sweet Showdown

Product integration run amok inside a watered-down version of Holiday Wars is made watchable by one brilliant choice B-

What works for me:

  • The elf reaction shots
  • The contestants’ creativity, and their magic twists to their creations
  • The judges sitting on the mantle and other small production choices

What could be better:

  • More time for the challenges
  • Less asking the contestants to act
  • No elf surveillance

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Chuck S.

Tuesday 28th of November 2023

I don't think I have ever seen you drop the F-bomb so much.. and with such hilarity! Honestly, I am surprised you like this show. I think it's pretty awful and I love almost all reality competitions on FoodNetwork. And I enjoy Duff in almost everything he does.. this one.. not so much. I will agree with you that it *is* better than Candyland.. but that's not a high bar to jump over.