“I don’t mean to laugh, but…” That’s the catchphrase that comes to define Nailed It!, Netflix’s new baking show. Pitting amateur bakers against each other in a heated kitchen, it’s an antidote to the more serene tones of The Great British Bake Off.
It’s a recipe that, on paper, seems like a surefire win. GBBO has helped to encourage a perfectionist culture around cooking that has led to countless Instagram and Pinterest accounts showcasing stunning homemade creations on pristine kitchen countertops across the country. Why strive for greatness when you can instead revel in mediocrity? Why praise filtered photos of extravagant recipes, when you can celebrate all the times those recipes were made but went wrong?
Host Nicole Byer doesn’t so much sink her teeth into the idea as devour it whole, introducing each new contestant and challenge with one of two different presenting styles: shouting, and shouting twice as loudly. It’s a delicate balance she has to strike, having to be energetic enough to liven up the candy-coloured set but also having to be nice enough to avoid laughing at people’s failings. She certainly manages the former, and her improv background means that she never has to worry about autocues or scripts and instead seems to wing it through the whole six episodes, never being anything less than herself.
The contestants, meanwhile, are just as straightforward, making no claims to greatness and admitting that, while they like baking, it’s not necessarily something they can actually do well. Some are proud of this, others mildly embarrassed, and one contestant is extremely candid about the fact that she hopes she can use it to attract herself a boyfriend.
They’re given a diverse enough line-up of things to make, always required to imitate a bake in the studio, whether that’s a jelly donut that looks like a pirate or a gigantic shark cake, complete with a victim in its mouth. The climactic round even requires contestants to assemble and decorate a bust of Donald Trump – a laugh-out-loud challenge that uses ramen noodles for what can loosely be described as his “hair”. The prizes, too, are trying something different, with round one of two introducing power-up items, such as a button that causes everyone else to freeze for 3 minutes or calls over an expert to help.
But such novelty can’t quite cover up the format of the show, which always builds up to the same anti-climax: a cake is revealed and everyone is asked to laugh at it. Nicole tries her best to be nice, but she’s also required to mock each flaw or mistake, which results in an awkward clash of tone and sentiment. There’s meant to be an everyone-is-welcome streak to finding joy in imperfection, but it frequently feels cruel rather than kind; with such short time limits and ingredients such as modelling chocolate, even with a recipe provided on an iPad, there’s often little chance for an above-average baker to craft something that will look impressive. In that sense, it really is the opposite of The Great British Bake Off, which strives for perfection but does so in a uniquely encouraging and supportive way; in the hyperactive rush to create a piece of social media-friendly pop culture, it’s easy to forget that GBBO’s success stems from the fact that it’s already an antidote to the reality TV contests out there. An antidote to an antidote, then, risks simply being more of the norm, which is the kind of thing Americans have in abundance on food TV channels.
Tellingly, the guest experts emerge as the best thing about the show. Silvia Weinstock, wedding cake designer extraordinaire, is wonderfully irreverent about the whole thing and is more concerned about drinking vodka, while chocolate guru Jacques Torres (dubbed “Doc Choc” by Byer) is endearingly useful when summoned to help, and even reduces one of the contestants to a swooning sigh. (Compare that to Nicole, who is instructed by one power-up item to be annoying to another contestant for 3 minutes. She does it with commendable enthusiasm, but also in a way that’s, well, annoying.)
The result is an uneven creation, which finds genuine laughs in its naff cash-firing gun that the panel of judges use to shower the winner in $1 bills, but also struggles to find chuckles in each baker’s semi-success; when we actually do get a cake that’s satisfactory, the programme seems at a loss on how to react. With only half an hour per episode, meanwhile, there’s no time to get to know the people taking part and sympathise with them – another crucial component in GBBO’s charm.
“I don’t mean to laugh…” begins Nicole, recalling Aziz Ansari’s madcap turn in Master of None’s spoof baking show, Clash of the Cupcakes. No matter how many times she says it, though, it’s a shame that you don’t end up laughing more. This is cheap, cheerful cooking television for Netflix as it tries to whip up a new demographic, but Nailed It! doesn’t leave the nicest taste in the mouth.
Nailed It! is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.