Viral Days

Make Yourself Comfortable

What have we learned in quarantine from competitive reality shows?

By Ian McMurray | May 27, 2021
A competitor on HBOMax’s Haute Dog
A competitor on HBOMax’s Haute Dog

I was in the last semester of my graduate program when the pandemic hit, and despite everything, I glimpsed a silver lining. Maybe, if I was forced to stay inside an apartment for months on end, I would make outsized progress on my collection of short stories. Quarantine seemed like a bizarre chrysalis that I could enter as a lowly M.F.A. student and exit as an author. But that didn’t happen. Instead, I’ve spent my time watching craft-centric competition reality shows.

I’ve always been a fan of the genre—I binged Wrap Battle, Freeform’s disturbing one-season wonder about competitive gift-wrapping, even before the world was besieged by calamity—but over the past year of quarantine I’ve descended upon its offerings with a new intensity. I’m hardly the only one: the September 2020 premiere of The Great British Baking Show was the most-viewed show on the U.K.’s Channel 4 in 35 years.

It makes sense. The genre has always offered easy comforts, not least of which is familiarity. Despite wide variation in subject matter (cooking, interior decorating, flower-sculpting, etc.) the shows all adhere to the same basic formula: a group of competitors is herded onto a production set, where they vie for victory in a series of creative challenges.

Set dressings vary widely in sensibility. The over-caffeinated sets of HBOMax’s Haute Dog (about competitive dog-grooming) and Netflix’s Best Leftovers Ever! (which tests competitors’ skills at reimagining leftovers) are what happen when a set designer never hears the word no. (When competitors are eliminated from Best Leftovers Ever!, they exit the stage through a giant Chinese takeout box.) The aforementioned Great British Baking Show and NBC’s Making It (an arts-and-crafts competition hosted by Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman) opt for a cottagecore aesthetic heavy on gingham and hand-piped details. On the other hand, Netflix’s international cooking competition The Final Table looks like it was filmed on the deck of the Death Star, as if poaching an egg were the first step on the path to intergalactic domination.

Unfailingly, these sets use their aesthetic to cue the tone of the competition both to competitors and, later, to viewers. If you’re on The Final Table, you’re competing for life-changing prestige; if you’re on The Great British Baking Show, you’re competing for the love of a good biscuit. The contestants only exist in connection to the set we see them on, reorganizing how and what we know about them. We learn almost nothing about the real lives of the competitors, unless it can be useful to the show. At some point, I began to wonder if people only have grandmothers in case they wind up on Bake Off and need a dedicatee for their pineapple upside-down cake.

The challenges are typically timed. After the challenge clock runs out, the competitors face judgment by (sometimes dubiously) credentialed experts, who eliminate contestants until a winner is reached at the end of an episode (Chopped) or at the end of a season (Project Runway). These judges provide, through their feedback, a thin technical vocabulary which audiences can emulate as contestants are winnowed down. (In the earliest months of quarantine, my roommates and I would lob one of Bake Off judge Paul Hollywood’s favorite criticisms—“It’s underproofed, and therefore underbaked”—at any imperfect object in our apartment: instant macaroni, our lumpy couch, a jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece.) This is another pleasure of the genre: viewers can become pseudo-authorities in crafts they have perhaps never practiced.

The reliability of the genre’s formula yields predictability, making the shows absorbing while I’m watching them and forgotten when I’m not. Combined with the self-contained world of the sets, the frequent cheeriness of the contestants, and the imaginative oddity of the challenges at hand, these competitions can feel risk-free. Competitors are being eliminated, but I’m one step closer to finding out who will be crowned Haute Dog. No moment more innocently or capably captures this high stakeslessness than when Robin Thede, “haute expert” on the show, gasps in ecstasy after discovering one groomer’s intent to style a cocker spaniel after Cleopatra.

Is this anodyne combination of faux-authority and blissful inconsequence the reason the genre has increased in popularity during the pandemic? Most commentary on craft shows fixates on the capacity of the genre, with its Earl Grey tenor, to infuse the panicked mind with calm. A panelist on a segment of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour noted how The Great Pottery Throw Down appealed to her because it depicted “this beautiful snow globe world where there’s no pandemic.” I feel almost the opposite. Rather than offering an escapist vision of a world unravaged by pandemic, I’ve taken reassurance from the way these shows offer an escapist vision of pandemic. They present quarantine conditions as a utopia in which creative laborers, isolated in a single space for an extended period of time, yield art validated through external adjudication. They have “flourished,” instead of slowly sinking into their couches. The shows are an idealization of the creative labor so many of us have undertaken during this strange time, whether sourdough-starting or tie-dying or TikTok dancing, both to differentiate it from our “normal” lives and to imbue it with shape and value.

But if the genre reflects the role creative labor has played in ordering lives that were suddenly stripped of their normal markers of progress—the work commute, the first date, the graduation ceremony—it reflects like a funhouse mirror, giving an ironic warping of its intended image. The genre, in offering us a delicious fantasy of the creative process as a validating force, also implicitly asks some apocalyptic questions about artistry.

Conventionally, art is praised as personal expression. It may yield professional advancement, but isn’t necessarily defined by its ability to do so. But what about the art that is created solely for advancement—for being judged against someone else’s art, against a clock, on a staged TV set? Instead of emerging out of a long process of judgment and criticism, art in these shows is presented as something made for judgment and criticism. Which part of the creative process brings us comfort: creation, or approval?

The question stands for viral quarantine craft trends, too. Were they taken up for their ability to reflect the novel experience of quarantine, or were they taken up for the novelty of their own executions? Either way, why did any of it end up online? It makes me wonder if the comfort and satisfaction we found came not from the craft—not from the baking of sourdough—but from the way the craft allowed us to receive praise for demonstrating a new skill—from the way baking sourdough helped us to perform the act of flourishing even as the world stopped. If this is true, then the very crafts we used to distinguish life in quarantine as exceptional were the activities that made it like any other period of life. Quarantine became just another time where we acquired new skills in order to win approval.

On April 1, a new season of The Great Pottery Throw Down aired on HBOMax, and five days later I received my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. As the world baby-steps back toward normality, I wonder if I can learn to feel comfortable with not finishing my story collection, or, really, making anything that would advance my standing. Recently I’ve seen an uptick in articles pondering how we might return to “the way things were before.” I hope we don’t. I hope, instead, we use this period of reopening to reevaluate how we can make ourselves feel at ease—disentangling, in the process, our conflation of achievement with comfort.

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