This year served us a smorgasbord of reality television escapism in the form of wholesome programming: shows that deal primarily in compassion, support, and empathy, and make you weep out of joy and closure, rather than sadness. They're an uplifting antidote to reality TV, past and present, shows that focus on interpersonal drama or aggressive competition—think The Bachelor, Survivor, America's Next Top Model, Project Runway, or American Idol. Rather, these new programs seem to understand the value of, say, Project Runway's Tim Gunn being a fan favorite for his kindness and dotage over contestants—and they make that ethos their whole premise.
It's hard to know why, exactly, there was such an embrace of this genre in 2018. Perhaps it's thanks to the more and more precarious economic health of the millennial generation, or the sheer exhaustion over a toxic presidency. Whatever the reason, we're all clearly grasping for a smidgen of something like TLC but with a little more wit. Here are a few of our favorite wholesome shows of 2018, and why we love them:
Queer Eye premiered this year, but it feels like Jonathan Van Ness, Antoni Porowski, Tan France, Karamo Brown, and Bobby Berk have been with us so much longer. Much of that is thanks to a successful rebrand of the core concept of the original 2000s reality television makeover show, Queer Eye For the Straight Guy. Rather than an exotifying notion of gay men "beautifying" straight men, 2018's Queer Eye bankrolls on the increasingly popular notion of self-care, and the idea that everyone deserves self-love and to feel that compassion reflected around them.
Each episode follows the new Fab Five as they give a deserving subject a makeover—starting from the inside. The show knows it's peddling positivity, sporting “I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying” billboards—it is extremely hard to get through an episode with crying, yes—and serving updates on the marital status of early makeover subjects.
The Great British Baking Show
The wildly popular Baking Show deliberately creates a sense of community. Rather than push contestants to debase each other, bakers will often offer to help their struggling competitors when time is running short—and perhaps competitor isn't the right word so much as comrade. A confessional may catch someone professing a desire to beat out other bakers, but when the rounds are over they immediately hug and comfort one another. When someone produces a wonderfully delicious and imaginative cake, biscuit, or pastry, everyone in the room seems genuinely pleased.
These are just a few of the reasons this show was a smash hit in Britain—and thanks to Netflix, it was imported across the pond to the US. This year gave us a new "collection" a.k.a. season, as well as a holiday mini-special. After warming up to the new hosts Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding as well as judge Prue Leith during Collection 5, Collection 6 was pure comfort food (save for the decreasing value of the Paul Hollywood handshake, but we don't have to think about that right now).
The only thing more pleasant than doing arts and crafts is watching Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman—essentially in character as Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson, no less—facilitate the making of said items. It's a fairly blatant reskin of the Great British Baking Show: Hosted in a tent in an idyllic setting, supportive rather than combative, but honestly much less stressful as the crafting challenges don't hold a candle to the technical aspects of expert-level baking.
The show is a perfect background watch. Cuteness is dialed up to 10 as Poehler bops around in overalls, and introduces each episode with the phrase "life is hard enough." She and Offerman have intermittent craft related pun-offs where they say things like “I macramade you and I can macrabreak you.” Judges frequently hug contestants. Offerman tells everyone, "the real prize is a job well done." It's a lot like being in 3rd grade again, where you were under the illusion that work mirrored reward. And it's nice to watch a version of reality where that's genuinely the case.
If you enjoy a good #pinterestfail, this show will appeal to you. Contestants are selected off of their terrible baking abilities, and asked to produce fantastical bakes under time constraints even master bakers could not execute. This premise could easily be a setup for embarrassment and abiding sadness—reminiscent of Kitchen Nightmares, or really anything with Gordon Ramsay. But the show is quite the opposite, thanks to all of the contestants being in on the joke. They know they're terrible, they know they're there for a good laugh and to learn a few tricks—not to advance as amateur prodigies of a craft. It also helps that none of them identify themselves primarily as "bakers," or the "thing they are doing on the show," the same way contestants on more competitive programs do.
Hosts Nicole Byer and Jacques Torres have a peculiar, perfect chemistry. The former supplies personality, and can be summoned via an emergency button to verbally harass another competitor for a set amount of time. Torres, on the other hand, is a mellow James Beard Award winning pastry chef and chocolatier who gives baking advice and a bit of sanity to the whole affair. He always finds a way to compliment the bakers and a way to give positive yet constructive criticism to those with the most potential.
Though this docuseries is not necessarily the same breed as the others on this list, it's revolutionary for a number of the same reasons: charm, accessibility, and compassion. Cooking and travel shows can often feel like a laundry list of inaccessible luxury—think Chef's Table—a form of escapism that is so out of reach it can ultimately leave you with the feel of despair. But Salt Fat Acid Heat is just the opposite. Samin Nosrat's show, designed after her best-selling cookbook of the same name, feels like a celebration, a community, an embrace. It's revitalizing to be taught the intention and history of flavor, and to consequently form an intimate relationship with the foods that are being shown. You don't just gaze at the sweeping vistas of the Italian olive vineyards while Nosrat goes olive hunting—you learn how the freshness and insane quantities of olive oil make focaccia delicious. You learn how olive oil is a kind of fat, and how fat makes things taste exquisite. She teaches you how to incorporate these skills. And you get to watch her devour the food she's made.
Nosrat is a gift—somehow, years of grueling kitchen work have left her only more curious, hungrier. This childlike desire to know more, and to share everything that excites her with you, the viewer, is contagious. Women in television so rarely get to eat, much less eat with absolute joy. Salt Fat Acid Heat made me ravenous and sated me all at once. I bought her cookbook immediately and learned about 50 new cooking principals that enhanced the taste and quality of my own meals immeasurably. In a media landscape where drama and despair are regarded with more respect, it's vindicating to feel the impact of a work borne of intense optimism and passion. Nosrat reminds us that when we support people in chasing their passions, we all benefit immeasurably.
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