The Netflix baking competition “Nailed It” teaches us how to find joy in failure

“Nailed It” teaches us to appreciate the ways that disaster can be beautiful.
“Nailed It” teaches us to appreciate the ways that disaster can be beautiful.
Image: Netflix
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Failure is quite literally baked into the premise of the Netflix series Nailed It. The reality baking competition, which recently debuted its third season, asks contestants to replicate ridiculously extravagant confections—a bust of Napoleon Bonaparte created out of puff pastries, say, or a cake decorated to look like a ski slope, complete with fondant penguins whizzing down whirls of snow-white frosting.

I couldn’t make that. You probably couldn’t make that. And the contestants, who tend to be the kind of amateur bakers prone to burning chocolate-chip cookies in the oven back at home, are aware that they have a 0% chance of success. The expectation—shared by the judges, the audience, and the hapless bakers themselves—is that the contestants will bungle whatever they set out to do, and that everyone will have a wonderful time bonding over the results.

Nailed It is a highly effective antidepressant in the form of a TV show, thanks in part to the tone set by its two main judges, the jubilant comedian Nicole Byer—who treats the world to an unforgettable dinosaur impression this season—and the consistently gentle French chocolatier and pastry chef Jacques Torres, who looks baffled when a contestant’s attempt to create a replica of the statue of David turns out looking like a spaghetti-limbed cartoon character doing the hustle in a thong, but finds something to compliment nonetheless. (“Your marble actually looks like marble,” he notes. “And it’s blue. It’s nice.”)

But beneath the show’s uproarious surface lies a corrective to the way Western culture typically frames failure as a necessary stepping stone on the path to success. In the process of offering up collapsed cakes, nightmarish candy princesses, and doughnuts with melted pirates’ faces for popular consumption, the show reveals how falling short can be deliciously subversive, and even downright fun.

What Silicon Valley gets wrong about failure

A lot of people are pro-failure these days, understanding it as a prerequisite for learning on the journey toward bigger and better things. This upbeat attitude is distilled in Silicon Valley’s bastardization of a quote from playwright Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Beckett meant to suggest that life was an inevitable series of misfortunes and disappointments, with no relief in sight; productivity gurus like Tim Ferris interpret it to mean that you’ve got to keep failing until something finally works out.

That’s not such a terrible outlook. But as Adrian Daub writes for The Guardian, tech culture’s cultural tolerance for tanking mostly applies to young white guys, who have the dual advantage of a) occupying the kind of body that makes them more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt, and b) having plenty of time to come up with a new business idea, even if their last venture flopped. Embracing failure as a means to an end may help motivate the mini-Zuckerbergs hunched over their laptops in an incubator in Palo Alto, coding to the faint rattle of a foosball table down the hall. Yet the more one scrutinizes tech’s relationship with failure, the clearer it becomes that most entrepreneurs and VCs don’t actually love failure at all.

What they crave is a fairly conventional version of success: Lots of money, lots of power and influence, and why the hell not, immortality too. Failure is simply the price they’re willing to pay in the short term, specific to the peculiar monetary calculations of a field where investors are willing to accept plenty of bombs in hopes of eventually scoring big. This mindset is hardly universally applicable. As Daub notes, “For tech, failure is always assumed to be temporary; for everyone else, it’s terminal.”

To be sure, there are some aspects of tech culture’s view of failure that really can help people cope with the low points they’ll inevitably face in their careers. Psychologist Martin Seligman, considered the founder of positive psychology, says his research suggests that the people who are most resilient in the face of failure are those who “have a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable.”  Happily, he suggests that anyone can be trained to think like an optimist who expects that good times are just around the bend—a worldview that closely aligns with the prevailing entrepreneurial perspective.

At the same time, Seligman takes exception to the emphasis that capitalist society places on individual success. In his book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, he notes, “Depression is a disorder of the ‘I,’ failing in your own eyes relative to your goals. In a society in which individualism is becoming rampant, people more and more believe that they are the center of the world. Such a belief system makes individual failure almost inconsolable.”

The solidarity of messing up

It is in this respect that Silicon Valley, with its unquestioning impulse toward self-optimization, stumbles, and that Nailed It truly shines. Built into the show’s conceit is the idea of failure as a collective project. One person gets a $10,000 cash prize and a weird trophy at the end, sure, but mostly, everybody tries their best to do the impossible and merrily screws up together. The winner in a given episode isn’t even someone who actually does well, but whoever is the least-bad; someone who didn’t confuse salt with sugar and remembered to let their cakes cool before glopping on the frosting.

This sense of solidarity extends beyond the trio of contestants, encompassing the viewers on the other side of the screen, who cannot look upon intricate cakes straight out of Versailles-era France without coming to the conclusion that they, too, could never pull this thing off. As Helen Rosner writes of the show for The New Yorker, “there’s a far more accessible joy in screwing it up mightily, throwing your hands in the air, and sharing your truly epic fail with the world.”

In an era where social media means that our everyday realities are frequently air-brushed to perfection, there’s no discounting the rebelliousness of a show that not only sets people up for failure, but greets that failure with adoration. “These three dinosaur cakes are honestly the most glorious things I have ever seen,” Byer says affectionately in one episode from the third season. The T-Rex cakes, molded from Rice Krispy treats, bear no resemblance to the shining Jurassic Park-style work of art that the contestants sought to imitate. But they are—with their idiosyncratic personalities, full of “derpy” underbites and resemblance to alligator-frogs who’ve “had a day”—eminently lovable. It’s a small step from loving the flawed creations featured on Nailed It to loving the people who made them, whether or not they overfilled their cake pans or offer up a dish that, in the words of Byer, contains “literal garbage.”

Nailed It is the kind of show that would likely appeal to critical theorist Jack Halberstam, whose 2011 book The Queer Art of Failure champions the idea that failure is often a more progressive, creative, and compassionate option than success. Halberstam explains how learning to embrace the experience of failure can reorient our sympathies:

The concept of practicing failure perhaps prompts us to discover our inner dweebs, to be underachievers, to fall short, to get distracted, to take a detour, to lose our way, to forget, to avoid mastery, and, with Walter Benjamin, to recognize that “empathy with the victor inevitably benefits the rulers.” All losers are the heirs of those who lost before them.

Key to Halberstam’s point is that we’re raised to identify with, and aspire to imitate, winners: The billionaires, major-league sports idols, CEOs, movie stars, reality TV stars, and Instagram influencers whose perspectives on life dominate the media we consume; the people on Top Chef or Cupcake Wars who actually know how to follow a recipe. Sure, we may root for the underdog, but only to a point. Narratives about 90-pound-weaklings or scrappy Little League teams are centered on the idea that the protagonists will eventually turn a corner and start winning, transforming into Captain America or making the state championships.

In internalizing the idea that we share in the victories of people operating in a rarefied sphere of money and fame, we become complicit with a worldview in which everything is a competition, and inequality can be explained away as the just outcome of living in a meritocracy.

Learning to take pleasure in the idea of ourselves not as winners, but as ordinary folks who are continuously flailing in the face of challenges, is a counterintuitive practice. But if we can find a way to do it consistently, we become at once kinder and more dangerous to the systems that seek to sort the world into winners and losers in the first place. Thinking like an optimist, per Seligman, doesn’t mean that we have to locate our self-worth in successful individual achievement; we just have to stay hopeful and positive in the face of a challenge, much like the contestant in this season’s Nailed It finale who attempts to use a rolling pin on frosting.

“Failure preserves some of the wondrous anarchy of childhood and disturbs the supposedly clean boundaries between adults and children, winners and losers,” Halberstam writes. “And while failure certainly comes accompanied by a host of negative affects, such as disappointment, disillusionment, and despair, it also provides the opportunity to use these negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life.”

One of the best ways to overcome our fears is through controlled exposure. Perhaps one step toward unlearning our fear of failure would be to curl up with the latest season of Nailed It, and watch what happens when people admit that they’re fundamentally unprepared for the project that has been put before them, don a goofy grin, and plunge with their fellow contestants into the chaos. Could there be a better symbol of our shared humanity than a slapdash, tilting cake, precariously held together with sloppily applied layers of buttercream? To quote one of Byer’s signature catchphrases: “What a dream!”