“Life is stressful enough,” Amy Poehler intones in the opening moments of Making It, NBC’s late-summer crafting competition show. “Let’s make a show that makes you feel good!”
She’s right, and they did. “They,” in this case, is Poehler and her Parks and Recreation costar Nick Offerman, reprising, in a way, their once-fictional roles. Offerman, whose gruffly libertarian Ron Swanson preached the gospel of self-reliance while inhaling bacon by the pound, is famously a real-life woodworker, making him the perfect candidate to both evaluate crafters’ handiwork and give the traditionally feminine practice some universal appeal. Poehler’s real-life persona, of course, has more than a whiff of Leslie Knope’s can-do spirit. A crafting novice out of her depth, she serves as a surrogate for the at-home viewer who doesn’t know a glue gun from a thingamabob.
But however obviously Poehler and Offerman are drawing on our previously established impressions of their odd-couple bonhomie, Making It—which has already been renewed for a second season—isn’t a product of just Parks and Rec. The crafting show is the latest in a series of stateside attempts to capture the appeal of what’s turning out to be American television’s most deceptively disruptive import in years.
The Great British Bake Off, also known as The Great British Baking Show, is one of those series that, like Breaking Bad and Riverdale, technically existed before Netflix, but was essentially injected into the popular imagination through the IV drip of a streaming queue. A massive phenomenon in its native U.K., not to mention the dozens of countries that host extant spinoffs, GBBO also holds an obvious appeal to the American audience. In short, Bake Off seems practically designed to be the antithesis of “good” reality TV, something Americans supposedly know better than anyone. The contestants aren’t lurid spectacles designed in a lab to generate schadenfreude and social media infamy, but earnest amateurs genuinely aiming to demonstrate their skills. The judges aren’t Cowell-like roast masters who exist to puncture people’s dreams, but well-meaning sources of advice and innuendo. And most shockingly to those of us raised under late capitalism, the prize in each season isn’t a pot of gold, but pride, pure and simple. Like Terrace House, another Netflix-borne reality craze, Bake Off’s popularity is less about the show than what the show says about the society that created it—and how different that society is from our own.
That hasn’t stopped enterprising producers from attempting to replicate the Bake Off model in the States, with spotty results. BBC’s The Big Family Cooking Showdown has been, to put it mildly, not as well received as its inspiration. CBS aired the abortive Jeff Foxworthy–MC’ed The American Baking Competition, which lasted just one season. ABC has had better luck with The Great American Baking Show, even bringing on controversial Bake Off judge Paul Hollywood, but the series is still nowhere near dethroning the more frenetic likes of Chopped or Top Chef. Some have compared the sunny spirit of Netflix’s Queer Eye reboot to the Bake Off sensibility, but Queer Eye is a makeover show, which exists within its own tradition—and without a competitive structure.
Still, Making It demonstrates that American producers are inching toward understanding, and replicating, what makes Bake Off such a balm. Last year Netflix launched Nailed It!, an amateur baking show with an inspired twist: Contestants aren’t just nonprofessionals—they’re self-described baking failures. These novices are then hurled into the heat of battle and tasked with replicating impossibly elaborate, structurally intricate concoctions. Never mind that making food that tastes good and sculpting objects that look good are two different skills; television is inherently visual, and Nailed It! consistently yields visual abominations that shock and surprise. (Plus the occasional success story, but those aren’t as fun.) Besides, as the judging panel indicates, entertainment trumps expertise every time: Master chocolatier Jacques Torres serves as the token sage, but host Nicole Byer and a rotating panel of comedian guest judges are there for mostly color commentary. This being America, there’s still a $10,000 prize awarded at the end of every episode, yet what’s being honored isn’t accomplishment so much as valiant, inevitably futile effort. Nailed It! is a “You tried!” sticker adapted into a television property.
As close as Nailed It! gets to channeling the Bake Off credo of trying for trying’s sake, Making It brings the search for an American alternative one step closer to its end point. This being a broadcast production, there are still blatant branding tie-ins. One of the judges, Dayna Isom Johnson, is an in-house trend spotter at Etsy, and most commercial breaks begin with a cheery bit of sponcon for NBC’s “lifestyle learning digital platform,” Bluprint. Eight crafters, each with a different specialty (there’s a felt artist from New England, a woodworker from New Hampshire, and so on), compete for the title of “Master Maker”—and a $100,000 cash prize. “But we’re not making a big deal about the cash!” Poehler is quick to qualify. “Because the real prize is a job well done.”
Even if Making It can’t bring itself to do away with the prize money, then, the contest that supposedly frames the show is undercut at every turn. Poehler’s main running bit is mock-proposing not to eliminate anyone from the worthy pool of contenders; Offerman’s is refusing to announce who’s going home each week, instead delegating to Johnson or her fellow judge Simon Doonan. Every episode is sprinkled with silly segments that have nothing to do with the challenge of the week, featuring a “pun-off” between Poehler and Offerman or a lesson from Offerman to Poehler in the basic terminology of crafting. And as if to demonstrate that hard feelings are nonexistent at the idyllic, Malibu-adjacent farm where Making It films, the first episode ends with a serene porch hang with Poehler, Offerman, and the kindly grandmother they just regretfully sent home.
Making It aims to celebrate its crafters’ accomplishments more than it punishes their failures, creating a welcome oasis in the midst of a noisy summer landscape of Gong Shows and World of Dances. By swapping out a generic Hollywood soundscape for a wholesome barn, by trading jeering putdowns for warm uplift, Making It underscores the fundamental lesson of Bake Off: Many fans want television to talk them down, not rile them up. And though its primary influence may be British, with a meat-loving carpenter at the helm, Making It is as American as they come.