Television

Nailed It! Is the Radically Kind Show to Cure What Ails You

The Netflix baking competition sets contestants up for failure, and then embraces it.

Nicole Byer
Nicole Byer.
Netflix

There’s little chance that when Netflix scheduled the newest season of Nailed It! for last week that they knew just how much we would need it. The odd-couple chemistry between comedian Nicole Byer and master chocolatier Jacques Torres, the cheerful march of novice bakers towards failures so stunning they defy the imagination, the aggressively pastel set, the hotness of taciturn assistant director Weston Bahr—all of it is a warm sugary balm to the soul in these trying times. And though any distraction from the social experiment we’re all living through is welcome, Nailed It!’s signature ability to transform the cutthroat world of competitive challenge shows into the equivalent of a support group more than earns the show’s place as a top-tier quarantine treat.

For the uninitiated, Nailed It! began, as all good things do, with a meme. The format is pretty standard: Three amateur cooks are asked to recreate some absurdly elaborate treat—like a gorgeously crafted tiered cake with a sphinx made of Rice Krispies treats or a jam-filled toaster pastry topped with a modeling-chocolate elephant. The contestants have a comically insufficient amount of time to complete these absurd challenges, and the one who manages not to poison the judges earns $10,000. It’s clear from the intricacy of the confections and the time limit, which rarely exceeds two hours, that the point of the show is not perfection—far from it. Nailed It! is a parade of abject, good-natured, candy-coated failure with madcap Byer and genial Torres as head marshals. Longtime viewers know that despite Byer’s rising star and Torres’ many awards that their laughter at bakers’ mishaps is never callous.

The concept could lend itself easily to mean-spiritedness, and it’s a testament to the hosts that the show manages to be Netflix’s sweetest offering, not just in content but in tone. The warm gooey center underlying Nailed It!’s success is the kindness evinced by Byer, Torres, and their rotating cast of guest judges, even as they’re subjected to cakes with enough artificial flavoring to choke a horse. Yes, there’s plenty of stunned laughter at the shocking creations that the contestants present, but it never feels like it’s at anyone’s expense. And more often than not, the judges find some way to compliment altogether dismal entries, even if it’s just Byer’s saying, “That’s the most interesting thing I’ve ever put into my mouth.” In the first episode of the fourth season, she turns to Torres as the bakers begin wreaking havoc that she will soon be forced to consume and asks, “Do you ever find it ironic that you are a highly decorated, well-respected pastry chef and you have to eat trash every day for money?” His response sums up not only what makes Nailed It! work but what makes it perfect for a moment where it feels like none of us know exactly what we’re supposed to be doing. “You know what I like about it?” he says. “When they mess up, I can explain why they mess up and how not to mess up. This is an opportunity for me to teach.”

The fourth season begins with an episode themed around literary cakes, meaning we get to watch three bakers attempt to recreate Captain Ahab in chocolate form. (Their droopy harpoons do not look like they’ll be stabbing from hell’s heart at much of anything.) If there’s one critique of the show it’s that the challenges rely far too much on contestants’ capabilities to sculpt fondant and modeling chocolate into not just recognizable shapes but miniature lifelike figures. Still, it’s undeniable that testing not just the bakers’ baking (in)abilities but their artistic ones produces incredible—and often inedible—results.

Unlike other competition shows (Netflix’s Sugar Rush, to name one) where the point is to watch those at the zenith of their profession create beautiful things, Nailed It! is an homage to cheerful ineptitude. The best episodes are when the guest judges have as little experience baking as the contestants themselves; Jason Mantzoukas’ manic appearances in both holiday special seasons remain a highlight of the show. And in the fourth season, Adam Scott’s turn as guest judge on Episode 6 is absolute perfection. (Evidently there’s some sort of exchange program with The Good Place, where Mantzoukas and Scott had recurring roles and Byer made a guest appearance as the afterlife’s cheeriest postal worker.) As noted by Alissa Wilkinson at Vox, one of the strongest lures of Nailed It! is that “it’s built a strange little universe for itself in which we’re shooting a baking competition show that’s for people who should never be on a baking competition show.” Scott’s and Mantzoukas’ ability to inhabit this alternate universe make their episodes worth watching multiple times.

The rewatchability of Nailed It! also stems from the fact that unlike on most competitions, who wins largely feels irrelevant. Shows like Chopped or Project Runway often ramp up internal drama by having contestants reveal a tragic backstory that makes them more deserving of the prize money. Despite the $10,000 prize, the most common sob story on Nailed It! is a contestant trying to prove to their family that they don’t suck at baking. Without any real-world stakes, Nailed It! is free to allow most of its joy to come from the interactions between its hosts. Before the first episode of the newest season, we’re treated to a skit featuring Torres and Byer performing as the divas they rightfully deserve to be after turning an idea that, at its outset, didn’t quite make sense into a verified success. The longest-running bit on the show is Byer making ridiculous demands of assistant director Bahr, whose name she yells as “Hhhwes!” Despite their necessary omnipresence, crew members are rarely seen on reality TV unless they’re chasing a runaway bride, but in the Nailed It! Universe, the camera operators and Bahr exist as recurring characters. Though at first, Byer’s merely requests that Bahr bring out the Nailed It! trophy in increasingly elaborate costumes that match the episode’s theme, by Mantzoukas’ second appearance, Bahr is bringing full tea service. When Scott craves a chimichanga in the middle of a challenge, we all know who’s going to bring it. And though a demanding star making a crew member perform for her could easily turn ugly, Bahr’s barely repressed smiles make the gag one of the best parts of the show.

Bahr’s increasingly large presence, plus the appearance of Lana Condor in the middle of Scott’s episode, all confirm that Nailed It! exists in a universe separate from ours, one where Byer shares an office fridge with the star of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and where spectacular failure is something to take joy in. How lucky are we then that we get to exist in this universe for at least four hours (more if you’re just starting or want to re-binge). At a time when we don’t know if we need to wear a mask or not, if we should order delivery or not, if we should take a walk or not, the message from Nailed It! is that, whatever we do, we should try to be kind.

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