How ‘Nailed It’ Fails It

Join us, as we mourn the death of craft.

A prize product from Netflix's show "Nailed It." Photo:

In a recent workplace gush-fest about The Great British Baking Show, a colleague mentioned a counter-cultural offering on Netflix: the new reality bake-off show Nailed It!, inspired by synonymous memes contrasting beautiful Pinterest dessert photos with hilarious DIY results. I love a hard fail as much as anyone, so I checked it out. Within minutes, I decided that this show is everything that’s wrong with 2018 — and 2019 – America.

On Nailed It, three rookie bakers compete to recreate elaborate, professional-grade confections, such as cakes and pops, in timed challenges. Their results range from mediocre to epically bad, which is the point. You don’t want them to succeed. Goopy icing running freely down an unrecognizable mass of radioactivity, with googly eyes, is what you want. It’s what America wants.

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Yet, unfathomably, the judges of Nailed It are encouraging. And supportive. And kind. The bench includes comedian Nicole Byer, chocolatier Jacques Torres, and superstar guest chefs who coach contestants. These last include 88-year-old Sylvia Weinstock in Iris Apfel glasses, who gets cooed over in the same irritatingly condescending way as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Antoni Porowski, the food and wine expert from Netflix’s Queer Eye reboot.

In this society we call free, we have the liberty to binge as many how-to videos and to embark on as many ill-advised activities as we desire. But why should Jacques Torres coach us through these half-baked efforts? Or politely compliment the flavor of shitty-looking buttercream? Do our capricious whims merit guidance by global industry leaders, as though we could really “pick it up”? Maybe Netflix should take this idea to America’s next Olympic luge team.

I’m aware that there’s no shortage of shows dedicated to excellence in cooking and baking. Yet I disagree that Nailed It is “the cooking show you did not know you needed” — though Byer, as host, is nearly reason enough to watch it. Thrillist maintains that “it’s a reminder that perfectionism is neither an attainable nor a worthwhile pursuit, and an affirmation that, yes, you can do this at home.” I mean…you sure can. When Nailed It is on, I cannot fathom why it is happening. Why is it entertaining to watch people who are great at things watch other people fuck up those things? A better show would be one camera trained on Lewis Black watching Nailed It.

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The Pinterest fail meme is a perfect genre needing no improvement. It celebrates vulnerability and takes much-needed aim at our Instagram-perfect expectations. Despite producing some pretty spectacular fails (special props to the Trump cake), the whole Nailed It spectacle is screwing around with this. It’s a sort of celebration of effort — any level of effort you like. Just Bake It, if you will.

The last thing anyone needs when savoring an enjoyable failure is sympathetic attachment. Yet the show features “humanizing” stories about why each contestant loves baking, or bakes for their children, or wants to improve their skills for some exasperatingly noble reason. And for the achievement of sucking a bit less than the other two, someone wins $10,000. The first episode’s winner burst into tears, gushing, “I did what I set out to do…I did my absolute best.” What on earth? And I thought only millennials wanted participation trophies.

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Nailed It shouldn’t take all the blame here, though. These ideas pervade the culture. We’re all about amateurs these days, from college sports to politics; the idea that someone can succeed with all of the gumption and none of the skills simply tickles our American fancy. From time to time, I see these ads for a company called Masterclass on Instagram and Facebook. They feature Annie Leibovitz and the likes of Annie Leibovitz teaching their craft in online courses. They imply that $180 buys me hot tips and tricks, and then I, too, can be Annie Leibovitz. I can take classes on campaign strategy and messaging, independent filmmaking, and — get this! — space exploration. You never know when you might need to be quasi-great at these and other things.

But guess what? I don’t want Annie Leibovitz to give just anyone her tips, because not all of us can, or should be, Annie Leibovitz. Or Spike Lee. Or Serena Williams. Steve Martin should never explain to anyone, in depth, why he’s funny. It’s interesting to see Malcolm Gladwell, who gave us the rule of 10,000 hours’ minimum to master a craft, on this list.

Do these products reflect a collective discomfort with the hard, slow work of craft, or those who take it on? Is this career FOMO? Resentment about the capacities we never cultivated or failing at things that really matter, channeled into laughing off sincere effort? Call it my classical music training. But no amount of Youtube videos, blogs or Skype instruction can make up for 20 years of trying to play the oboe every single day, and pretty often sucking at it. In 2018, the DIY world is your oyster; but, for the love of God, don’t subject other people to this. Especially trade masters. To really nail it, we’ve got to embrace — and we have to respect — a lifetime of failing it.