Nailed It is a cooking show that celebrates human error over culinary mastery. It’s like The Great British Baking Show, if The Great British Baking Show featured contestants who are not British and think it’s a good idea to stick a bunch of Kit Kats into a microwave when a recipe calls for melted chocolate.
The dessert makers on Nailed It forget to put eggs and flour in their batter, use powdered sugar instead of granulated, and try to build multi-tier cakes without frosting each layer. Basically, they make the competitors on Worst Cooks in America look like master chefs who should consider opening a new restaurant in Napa Valley to compete directly with French Laundry. As someone who still can’t use a rolling pin without uttering multiple profanities and ultimately shouting, “Screw it, I’ll just make drop cookies,” I love them for it.
Even though I write about television for a living, somehow I had no idea Nailed It was going to land on Netflix last Friday until Friday came, and an email about it showed up in my inbox. This only reasserts my belief that there’s something magical about this show. Like, I’m pretty sure the executives at Netflix conjured all six episodes simply by standing in front of the remnants of the Clash of the Cupcakes set from Master of None and waving the Nailed It trophy like a magic wand. Next thing they knew, host Nicole Byer, chef Jacques Torres, and wedding cake designer Sylvia Weinstock were all standing there, passing gentle judgment on three people struggling to make cake pops.
The format of Nailed It is nothing groundbreaking. It’s the execution and attitude that makes the show refreshing. The three sub-amateur contestants in each episode have to complete two challenges within a set time frame, with the winner ultimately receiving $10,000 and the coveted Nailed It trophy, which is a trophy with a cupcake nailed through it, I think? (Like the desserts on this show, the design is a little confusing.) Torres, the well-known pastry master and chocolatier, provides some legitimate baking tips along the way and is joined by another expert — in the first episode it’s Weinstock, but in subsequent episodes, others appear — to provide guidance to the novices. Byer, the comedian and star of the series Loosely, Exactly Nicole, which moved from MTV to Facebook Watch, acts as host and injector of sarcastic commentary.
Which brings me to the first element that distinguishes Nailed It from other cooking shows like it: The host is actually funny. If you’ve watched Cake Wars or Cupcake Wars, hosted by Jonathan Bennett — that’s right, in case you weren’t aware, Aaron Samuels from Mean Girls hosts cooking shows for the Food Network — you know the “hilarious” bits that are scripted for him are cringe-y as hell. Byers, a veteran of Upright Citizens Brigade, doesn’t bother with written bits because she knows how to improv. Mostly she makes comments out of the contestants’ earshot — “It looks like Toni has switched up and is making baked potatoes now,” she observes of one woman’s attempt to make a jelly doughnut. You always get the sense that Byers is being herself, and that’s very much in keeping with the “just puttin’ it out there” spirit of the show.
She and her fellow Nailed It judges may giggle at the contestants’ creations, but they are never mean. They are honest, but also encouraging, to the point where their compliments can sound comical. When Valerie Gordon, owner of L.A.’s Valerie Confections, looks at the animal-themed cake made by Maaz Ahmad, a special-ed math teacher, she tells him: “The zebra that you have — he’s got a cute expression.” Okay, Maaz’s zebra? Its face is a white blob with black stripes haphazardly painted across it. It has no expression. But you can tell he appreciates her words.
A few seconds later, Torres offers retired cop Sal Venturelli, the guy who thought that nuking Kit Kats was a smart idea, some faint praise for freestyling rather than consulting the directions he was given.
“You made a cake with your own recipe,” he says, “Which is good.” Honestly, if Sweeney Todd handed these judges a pie, they’d say, “Well, I didn’t care for the bits of human flesh in this and also, I’m pretty sure you belong in jail. But you made something. Good job!”
Still: I like their approach. It’s bluntness sweetened with a spoonful of sugar. What I like even more are the contestants themselves.
Competitive culinary television has conditioned us to expect massive egos and tension between budding chefs. The Great British Baking Show, bless it, took significant steps away from that model and so does Nailed It, which borrows its title from the meme that places kitchen disasters next to beautiful cakes, pies, and cookies on Pinterest.
All of the people on this show are fully aware that they are not good at baking. Sure, they would love to win the $10,000. But they’re not overly competitive, concerned about boosting their reputations, or worried about looking foolish on television. They all seem to be doing this show because they enjoy baking and want to have some fun while, maybe, picking up a pointer or two.
They also have a sense of humor about themselves. When Amanda Giles, a Mississippi grandmother with a drawl and a dry wit, makes a princess cake, she’s told that her damsel’s hair looks like overcooked egg noodles. “Everybody has a bad hair day,” she replies. That could easily be the motto of this entire series.
All of the people on Nailed It let their failures and losses roll off their backs, then keep on going with a smile. Imagine if people on social media behaved that way, or if some of our political leaders did. This would be a much more pleasant country to live in, albeit one where the faint smell of something burning always hung vaguely in the air.
If you weren’t already convinced that this is the cooking show America needs right now, the sixth episode does the job with a challenge that requires the three contestant to make a Donald Trump cake. They achieve this without getting into any arguments about politics, and also while making cakes that kinda sorta maybe a little bit look like the president? I mean: a tiny bit?
Look, at least they tried. And making an effort, as this show reminds us, is the first step toward actually nailing it.