On The Great British Baking Show, contestants bake over a series of weeks for the simple reward of a title and a cake stand. On Netflix’s Nailed It, contestants get made fun of over an afternoon for the reward of winning $10,000, shot at them with a money gun. The Great British Baking Show is the pinnacle of honorable competition; Nailed It is the pinnacle of selling yourself out. This divide lies in the difference between the two cultures that created the cooking shows and the construction of the shows themselves.
Nailed It is a cooking competition in which the entertainment derives from its amateur bakers completely failing to match their aimed-at desserts. Basically, it’s based on people totally beefing complex, Instagram-ready baked goods and the other people making side-by-side comparison memes with the nasty misfires.
Pastry chef and chocolatier Jacques Torres and comedian Nicole Byer host two rounds of mindlessly optimistic but ultimately well-intentioned amateur chefs attempting to replicate fancy desserts. Byer also hosted the aftershow to my beloved reality trash-darling Are You the One?, which allowed to her to prove her hosting charisma (strong, bold) and her willingness to run a program that comes oh so close to being too mean for TV.
There’s something uniquely American about the Dick’s Last Resort-ification of the cooking competition. We are a nation with a collective ego so large that we will literally pay for the masochistic pleasure of being torn down at a sub-Chili’s restaurant, so of course we’d watch the TV version of that. At least bad-faith American Idol flameouts were balanced with the actual singers. Here, the winner of the first round gets a stupid hat (like Dick’s)—a chintzy, gaudy reminder that even that small victory means the contestant is just the shined-up best of the worst—and the loser of the first round gets Dyer to annoy her opponents (also like Dick’s). The adolescent mockery in this catty, boozy brunch-time scroll through social media turned into a TV show is inflicted on bright-eyed bakers instead of paying customers, which makes it all that much harder to watch.
The ideological goals of Nailed It, compared to the wholesomeness of The Great British Baking Show, are like the reverse of Queer Eye’s journey from its original, mean-spirited form (“Look at these stupid straight boys’ jorts and these crazy gays”) to its current, empathetic one (“Cry in my arms, you beautiful human being”). In a time when bingeing TV is increasingly a respite from powerful people being awful, misreading one’s target audience is a damnable offense. It’s one of the reasons The Great British Baking Show became such a source of comfort as it travelled overseas and Queer Eye’s reboot has emerged as a hit. Nailed It chills the relatively warm reality show climate. It doesn’t have the implied affection of a roast, nor the pedagogical bent of an expert-coaching-amateur show.
Seeing real people and experts operate in tandem on shows like Cooks vs. Cons and Worst Cooks in America has given us a barometer to more accurately appreciate the kind of cooking we see on TV. We see growth at the same time that we get food-based slapstick. Simply watching amateurs have the air let out of them feels a bit pointless by comparison, like a version of America’s Funniest Home Videos where expert judges say, “These morons really shouldn’t be getting hit in the balls by their kids!”
On Nailed It, the judges’ table is comprised of Torres and an ever-changing guest, who alternates between cruelty and boredom so profound that he or she literally starts wandering around the set. It’s a strange, oddly budgeted production ($10,000 an episode as a prize for this farce? Who are they, Lucille Bluth?) that’s also incredibly underproduced. Some reality shows are so slick and overly professional that they seem completely fake. This is the opposite, which seems to have initially been part of the joke—though its horrors seem all too real, thanks to the loose writing and uneven direction. Whereas many cooking shows—especially The Great British Baking Show—use their editing to build endearing, often heartwarming characters, the one purpose of Nailed It’s lo-fi awfulness is to embarrass and mock its subjects for money. It’s the cooking show equivalent of a bum fight.
Their skills aren’t the only subject of mockery. A southern grandmother’s accent and a baker’s mispronunciation of “avant-garde” fall victim to the shoddy production’s misplaced elitism. At the end, there are plenty of compliments for the chefs’ good attitudes as their faces weather wave after wave of laughter crashing over them, but they feel so counter to the rest of the show that it’s just a small final backhand to a half-hour of shade. In truth, Nailed It spends 90% of its time tearing down the appearance of the bakes and 10% explaining how to do it correctly, which is an apt metaphor for our culture: It’s a cooking snuff series for the worst angels in all of our natures, as if we don’t get plenty of that in real life.
Nailed It is now streaming on Netflix.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.