Ever look at a cake and think, “Wow, that looks like a toddler assembled it as part of a sensory activity and then rammed it with a ball or block or tablet before jamming toy figurines into it for decoration?”
If the answer is yes, you were probably watching “Nailed It!” (If the answer is no, whoever made that eyesore of a cake should probably be on “Nailed It!”)
“Nailed It!” is the Netflix baking competition that might curb your sweet tooth — if the whole thing weren’t so delicious to watch. Comedian Nicole Byer hosts and judges alongside James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Jacques Torres as high-spirited amateur bakers attempt to replicate elaborately decorated masterpieces and produce visually confounding, sometimes inedible desserts that would make Mary Berry recoil. All for the chance at a $10,000 prize.
The series, whose third season premiered in May, is basically a TV version of the meme that pokes fun at lofty recipes gone wrong.
And this year it became a surprise Emmy nominee in the often predictable reality competition category, facing off against “American Ninja Warrior” (NBC), “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (VH1), “The Amazing Race” (CBS), “The Voice” (NBC) and “Top Chef” (Bravo). “Nailed It!” bumped Emmy veteran “Project Runway” from the running, halting the show’s 14-year nomination streak in the category.
On a night that celebrates excellence in TV, in a category of series that reward the best or fastest or savviest, “Nailed It!” stands out: Like the underdogs it spotlights, it’s the dark horse.
Byer and Torres were as stunned by the nomination as that time they bit into the cake made with a heavy dose of salt in Season 2.
“My roommate was watching the nominations live ... he was like, ‘Nicole, ‘Nailed It!’ was nominated for an Emmy,’ and I was like, ‘No, it wasn’t.’ And then I got phone calls from people. I think everybody was pretty confused. It was pretty cool. It was fun. It’s such a silly show that is edited so well and the contestants are so thoughtfully picked. So, top to bottom, I think we deserve [the nomination].”
“I couldn’t believe it,” Torres says. “Yes, I love the show; I love what Nicole [does], but at the end of the day, I’m a chef. I’m in the kitchen all the time. I was not expecting something like this. ... And, look, the message of the show is great: Don’t be afraid to fail.”
Executive producer Jane Lipsitz, whose other credits include more buttoned-up competition shows such as like “Top Chef” and “Project Runway,” says the feel-good spirit of the series plays well at a time when real life is serious enough.
“I think people are drawn to ‘Nailed It!’ because there’s a lot of things that people recognize and love in a traditional baking or culinary show,” she says. “But I think we really flipped it on its head and brought something unexpected. It’s simple and it’s feel-good and it’s funny. And I think it feels like this is a time that people really just need that. It’s really a show for people who love comedy. [And] it’s a show for people who love baking.”
In a world that is so heavily filtered and tailored, Lipsitz adds, there’s something invigorating about embracing fallibility.
“I think we live in very curated times,” she says. “Everyone wants you to be perfect. Food looks perfect, fashion looks perfect, people’s makeup looks perfect. And so I think there’s a saturation of perfection. It’s really refreshing to be watching a show where imperfection and failure is actually celebrated, because that’s much more closely connected to everybody’s human experience.”
That’s certainly part of the series’ recipe for success. Then there’s the pairing of Byer and Torres. The odd couple —she, the sharp-witted comedian with no background in baking; he, the genial chocolatier and pastry chef whose suggestions come in a candied French accent — have a sprightly, supportive rapport. There was the time in Season 3, for instance, where they sat in disbelief as a contestant attempted to roll out buttercream frosting: “You cannot roll buttercream,” Torres says, turning to Byer. “It’s a cream!” Or the time a contestant’s undercooked cupcakes fell apart and he covered an apple in frosting to make it resemble one: “Well, I appreciate you not serving us an uncooked cupcake,” Byer said.
The two can even make a conference call binge-worthy.
“Nicolllllllle, ma cherie,” Torres, calling from New York, says enthusiastically when he first hears Byer’s voice. “Nicole, wheeeere are you?”
“Jacques! My chocolate baguette!” she replies.
“Nicole, this is the best one. You’ve never called me that before. I love it. It makes me feel so much younger.”
The hosts say they didn’t have to ease into their banter. The 10-hour shooting days require a playful harmony, otherwise they’d feel as sluggish as some of the confections end up looking. And what’s developed is a friendship. Byer, whose interest in baking hasn’t increased since hosting the show, nonetheless says she made Torres an “ooey, gooey” buttermilk cake for his birthday. Torres, meanwhile, has cooked dinner for Byer.
“He made me lamb that he made over a couple days. It had this rich, delicious sauce,” Byer says. “And he made steak and salad. And oh my God, Jacques makes these mashed potatoes that are so ... good.”
Torres cheerily interjects: “The recipe is simple: same quantity of potatoes as butter — and then you mix all that together!”
Lipsitz says a show like “Nailed It!” could only have gotten the green light at a place like Netflix. As cofounder of Magical Elves, a kingpin in reality TV production, Lipsitz and the team were throwing around ideas for the streamer which was interested in baking shows. There was one straightforward idea, and two quirky ones.
“One of our development execs brought in the [meme] photos, and we just all started laughing, and we said, ‘Why not?’ Thinking it was a long shot,” Lipsitz recalls. “And we walked into the meeting [with Netflix] and they bought it in the room.”
(Lipsitz and fellow Magical Elves co-founder Dan Cutforth left the company earlier this year.)
All those involved with the show say that, three seasons in, they remain surprised by how horrendous some of the results are.
“People are incredible,” Byer says. “They’re truly so wild. They truly top each other with the mess they make.”
“I’m still surprised how bad some of those people can do,” Torres says. “Oh my God, and then we have to eat bad, bad, bad cake over and over again. You know that movie where that person dies and comes back, dies and comes back.”
“‘Groundhog Day,’” Byer offers.
“That’s us. But it’s bad cake after bad cake.”
This may be why Torres tries to focus on other things, like how much he wants to take Byer for a spin on a BMW R 1200 motorcycle — a wish he says producers have prohibited for insurance reasons.
“I’ve driven motorcycles all of my life; I know what I’m doing,” he says. “It’s too bad. I would love to do it.”
“I want to get on a motorcycle with you, Jacques!” Byer responds.
What about arriving at the Emmy red carpet on one?
“I would love nothing more,” Byer says.
“And we can dress all in leather,” Torres says.
“I’ll wear a leather dress.”
“With a sign on the back: ‘Nailed It!’” Torres adds. “We would have all the press, Nicole.”