Sam Brooks reviews the latest season of Nailed It!, the cooking show that celebrates enthusiasm over talent or edibility.
“Urggggh, I’m so mad! I’m so mad that this is in my mouth! I’ve never been angrier about something in my mouth! I am floored.”
There’s only one show that can elicit that torrent of bewildered frustration from its host. And that show is Netflix’s most bizarre, most wholesome, competitive cooking show: Nailed It!.
On the surface, Nailed It! is a cruel Sisyphean idea of a show. The contestants, an array of the most bizarre people still legally allowed to be hired for a reality show, uniformly lack the ability to follow the recipes they’re given. There’s no possible chance of them being able to recreate the professionally-made cakes that they’re assigned to bake. But it’s not a show that celebrates success; success would be boring for Nailed It!. It’s a show that celebrates dogged enthusiasm and commitment.
And that’s good, because god knows the contestants don’t have talent. This is exuberant effort in the face of incompetence. The above quote comes from the last episode of the second season of Nailed It: Holiday!, which is technically a spinoff but basically the same show in festive drag. In it, the contestants have to make the below monstrosity:
They have an hour 45 to make it, which is not just setting them up for failure, but basically pleading for it. Willy Blackmon, a lovely man with a doctorate in higher education who freely admits that he doesn’t know how to use an electric mixer, and who uses about ten cakes’ worth of liquid flavouring in his bake, is the contestant who inspires the above quote from host Nicole Byer, who laughs through her anger, and through the cake in her mouth.
These kinds of mishaps are constant on Nailed It!, and are the main draw of the show. We want to see bad cooking; it’s a less cruel version of the satisfaction you get from seeing the initial auditions of American Idol. But they’re not the main joy. No, the main joy is the unflagging enthusiasm of everybody involved.
Even when they fail, often spectacularly, and even more often eliciting laughs from the judges, everybody is complimentary and well, nice to each other. The contestants is never at fault because they were never expected to succeed, and nobody has any delusions that they’re a great cook, just an enthusiastic one. This is a show where enthusiasm is rewarded more than success is (unless you count the actual award, which honestly doesn’t matter).
A huge reason why this works is the force of wigs-and-nature that is Nicole Byer. She’s been reliably killing it for the past few years, with a Netflix half-hour special I can’t recommend highly enough, and more podcasts than most people have fingers. Whether she’s onstage, behind a podcast mike, or hosting this show, she has a huge energy that’s tempered with dryness, undercut with genuine savagery, and delivered with commitment to whatever the bit is, even if the bit is herself. Like the best comedians, she’s as willing to make fun of herself as she is of others.
In that way, she’s the perfect host for Nailed It!, a show which requires a quite frankly blinkered commitment from everybody involved. They need to commit to the bit that is Nailed It!. The contestants are never going to succeed at making what they’ve been assigned – even most great bakers couldn’t. But what they are going to succeed at is doing their best. While Byer is quick to laugh and make fun of the product, she never makes fun of the people making it. She calls them delightful (or to use her phrasing, “a true delight”) and takes care to make them feel special. When there competition shows out there that don’t even begin to make contestants feel special, that’s important. It feels cleansing to feel joy and happiness radiate off a reality show so freely.
Byer also plays remarkably well off her co-hosts, world-renowned baker Jacques Torres and a changing celebrity guest judge. Torres is quite rightly delighted by Byer, and there’s a lot of joy in him trying to keep a straight face while being bewildered by the contestants’ choices. The quality of the guest judges varies, and it’s generally the ones who commit fully to the concept of the show – like cabaret artist Bridget Everett or comedian Jason Mantzoukas – who fare best. At one point, Everett is so dismayed at a contestant’s complete lack of progress that she gets up from the judging table and starts helping her find ingredients in the pantry. It’s these moments of spontaneous chaos that also make Nailed It! special, and they wouldn’t be able to happen if the show was a bit more serious or committed to being a ‘proper’ competitive show.
Competitive reality shows can be exhausting ordeals. Even the most fun and compelling of these can become tiresome with their behind-the-scenes manipulation and manufactured moments (looking at you, Drag Race). They become about exploiting the gifts of talented people rather than celebrating those gifts. That’s why Nailed It! is such a welcome balm – it’s all about celebrating not just the enthusiasm of these contestants, but celebrating the contestants themselves.
You can watch Nailed It! and the new season of Nailed It! Holiday on Netflix right now.