You would have to be a most grumpy, dour, negative, naysaying, stubbornly unhappy, anti-life sort of person to turn up your nose at NBC’s "Making It," a new competition series hosted by former "Parks and Recreation" costars Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman that premieres Tuesday. The sort of person who, if a basket of puppies and kittens were left on your porch, you would shut the door on them.
Well, you say, I am allergic to puppies and/or kittens. And I will tell you there are shots for that. Well, you reply, I only said I was allergic because I actually don't like puppies and kittens, in any case. And I would say — puppies and kittens!
From the countryside setting, to the layout of the work space, to the pacing of the contests, to the drawings that envision a contestant's final product, to the interplay of the comedian-hosts and judges — "legendary" Barneys window dresser and "creative ambassador at large" Simon Doonan and Etsy "trend expert" Dayna Isom Johnson — the series is in most respects a close knockoff of "The Great British Baking Show," with crafting substituted for cooking. A single letter changes "OK, bakers," to "OK, makers."
The parallels are almost too obvious, but the producers have picked the right model, at least — a show marked by diversity, heart and humor, with a minimum of false drama and a lot of mutual admiration and support among the players. As with food, crafts can be a locus of family traditions, personal aspiration and deep feelings, and the assignments on "Making It" exploit this quite intentionally. But that it sets out to make you cry a little from time to time does not mean you should resist, even as you try to hide your tears from the person sitting next to you on the sofa.
As on the "Baking Show," the competitors in "Making It" are confident, yet not free from doubt. The contest, which as in most such shows runs against a clock, involves the usual issues of time management, of timidity, of overreach. Contestants do things with old tires and lobster traps and pool noodles. (America is apparently "pool noodle craft crazy.") They employ techniques with names like trapunto, shibori and shipoopi — sorry, that last one is a song from "The Music Man."
There are original twists and fillips, of course. Challenge winners receive patches, like merit badges, which they may affix to their shop aprons. (There is money for the last crafter crafting — this is America, after all.) And there is more comedy here, with cutaways to the hosts in crafts-themed pun battles and other tests — Offerman trying to identify different woods by smell, Poehler attempting to identify any tool at all. (She does not try hard; she is being funny.)
There could be more time spent watching the work itself (as the contestants dwindle in number, you do get proportionally more making). The short season — six episodes, with a quarter of every hour routed out for commercials, and time allotted for comedy — means that characters don't develop quite as fully as they might.
At the same time, it is no trouble telling them apart. Some have specific experience — this one is a woodworker, that one specializes in felt — others are craft generalists. Some have professional profiles in the world of makers. A couple have been on television before. They are more and less deadpan or expressive. All look good on television without looking like people who were chosen because they look good on television.
Offerman, many will already know, is an experienced woodworker with his own workshop and assistants and online store where he will sell you a bottle opener or a coffee table. Poehler, overalls notwithstanding, is not. As more or less themselves, they display a hint of their "Parks and Recreation" characters.
"We're not going to distract you," Poehler tells the makers, coming in to their making space, "we're just going to spread love and support," which is so Leslie Knope. Offerman offers a variation on Ron Swanson that is just as serious, but sweeter and less severe. Once in a while, they dance.
Their reactions to the work are often more interesting than that of the judges, who tend to be, you know, judgy; when the hosts weigh in, it feels spontaneous and heartfelt, as if they can't stop themselves. "That gave me chills," Poehler says as a maker offers a back story. "I would just exercise caution in laying popcorn on hot glue," Offerman warns another, who is about to do that, but he is also liable to say, of a contestant's work, "It's really accomplished."
They are also liable to say things like this:
Poehler: "I spray head-to-toe wood finish on myself before I even step on any set.”
Offerman: "That was Joan Crawford's thing, and she was gorgeous."
That the hosts are soft-hearted about eliminating contestants is something of a running joke, and one to which this critic relates. (The worst thing about a competition is the competition.)
"Here's a pitch,” says Poehler. “We don't send anybody home; we add somebody every week, we all stay here, we look at cool stuff, we go to dinner."
It sounds like a plan.