Television

The Odd Couple Who Give Nailed It! Its Gooey Center

The Netflix series should have gone stale, but the chemistry between Nicole Byer and Jacques Torres keeps it fresh.

Nicole Byer and Jacques Torres.
Nicole Byer and Jacques Torres.
Netflix

It’s more than likely that were it not for the blessings of the TV gods, Nailed It! host Nicole Byer and head judge Jacques Torres would have never met. She’s a raunchy comedian best known for her (hilarious) semi-autobiographical sitcom Loosely Exactly Nicole, a series about an aspiring young actress that was canceled after its debut season on MTV and now streams on Facebook Watch. He’s a legendary French pastry chef and chocolatier who has as many awards and distinctions as there are ways to mix flour, butter, and sugar. Their unlikely pairing—and breezy pseudo-flirtations—is the secret sauce that gives Nailed It! much of its charm and watchability long after the Netflix show wears out its core gimmick.

Based on a somewhat dated meme, Nailed It! is a confection with a reality-competition foundation, whose most distinct flavor is schadenfreude-based comedy (of the mildest sort). Three amateur cooks who can get their desserts to taste good—but rarely look good—are asked to make an elaborate delicacy: a doughnut in the shape of a pirate, say, or a three-tier castle cake with fondant figurines of a princess, a knight, and a dragon. (Contestants are rarely given more than two hours to bake and decorate.) The results are not supposed to be picture-perfect. In fact, Byer, Torres, and each episode’s guest judge frequently laugh aloud at the deformed outcomes in front of the people who make them. The premise makes watching the show feel not unlike sitting down with a bag of sugar: The first spoonful tastes great, but a binge may make you queasy.

Nailed It! is executive produced by Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz, the producing duo who have run Project Runway, Project Greenlight, and, most notably, Top Chef. But one of Nailed It!’s chief appeals is how unlike Top Chef it is: Rather than search for America’s next culinary superstar, the show simply rewards the competitor embarrassing themselves the least on international television. The stakes are as low as can be. At the same time, there’s something dispiriting about the accumulation of failure, even when seasons only run for six or seven installments. On shows like Project Runway and Top Chef, we watch talented professionals push themselves to create excellence week after week, with elimination challenges thinning out the herd to eventually pit the strongest contenders against one another. On Nailed It!, the highest achievement any viewer can expect to witness is mediocrity.

That makes the low-key coquetry between the hosts all the more important to sustaining a season. (The showrunners might know that, if the escalation in mutual teasing throughout Season 2 is anything to go by.) To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything romantic going on between the 31-year-old Byer and the 59-year-old (and married) Torres. But their pairing and chemistry encapsulate the show’s high-low allure and winsome casualness.

Through Torres and its roster of internationally renowned guest judges, Nailed It! clearly has expertise to spare. (Torres probably feels not unlike a celebrated English professor asked to grade fifth-graders’ essays about James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon.) In contrast, Byer seemingly knows next to nothing about baking. (She might call a cake sample “chewy,” or she might just say, “I’m happy with the things I put in my mouth.”) Their relationship is one where they happily meet each other in the middle. Torres’ open face and genial presence make him not just a fitting straight man to Byer’s manic jester but a relaxing presence too. And if the episodes have any narrative throughline, it’s Torres loosening up enough to make jokes like, “[The contestant] doesn’t know where the hole [in a box with pre-cut holes] is going to be. Story of my life.”

Byer flirts with almost everyone she feels like: fellow judges, contestants, recurring production assistant Wes. But Torres is her best flirting partner because of the extreme contrasts between them. She’s noisy and frequently dressed in loud colors and patterns—there’s even an occasional bit called “Nicole Nags,” where her chattiness is weaponized by a competitor against their rivals—while he’s relatively prim and wears a gleaming white chef’s uniform adorned with handsome stripes recalling the French flag. Not insignificantly, she’s a black New Jersey native; he’s a walking stereotype of a Frenchman. Also notably, they’re both portly. Their soupçon of sexual tension is all the more memorable because we rarely see people who look like Byer and Torres get to confidently indulge in their sensual sides, no matter how fleetingly.

It’s also just a sheer delight to watch two people who clearly like each other try to make one another laugh. It must be tedious to host Nailed It!, as they’re frequently stuck for three or so hours watching inept people do things poorly. I get the sense that much of their flirtations are just the hosts entertaining themselves because they get bored, while we reap the rewards of their wit and cheer. It helps that neither is committed to making a prestige program. If the contestants’ lack of skill comes across as amateurishness, the hosts’ professional unprofessionalism—including their teasing—comes through as authenticity. Yes, the meme on which it’s based is a bit stale, but at least Nailed It! can claim relevance in the relationship between Byer and Torres: In an era when the line between office romance and sexual harassment is under renewed scrutiny, here’s a bit of harmless workplace flirtation we can get behind.