“Making It,” a crafting competition show premiering Tuesday on NBC, is so genuinely good-hearted and adorably inventive that it’s darn near impossible to criticize. But let me at least try.
Sooner or later, American culture will need to have a strong talk with itself about adult-onset cutesiness, which started about 20 years ago, then gained hold as a comforting response to frayed 9/11 nerves and never stopped. Among other aspects of everyday life that were subsumed by cutesiness was the simple, often private act of having a hobby for making things. Hobbies got cutesified — and commodified — into a new activity called crafting.
Now is obviously not an ideal time to reckon with our addiction to all this flowers-and-birdies sweetness and clever, hipster-hacked smarm, because the world is just getting worse around us. Children are in cages, thermometers are rising, ice caps are melting. We take mental and emotional refuge wherever we can find it, armed with glue guns.
In a barn at some idyllic countryside farm, eight crafters (woodworkers, paper sculptors, decorators, junk hounds, felt fiends) assemble for the “Making It” craft-off in the same structure and tone of the soothing “Great British Baking Show.” With limited time but a relative bounty of resources and tools, the contestants are tasked with making something along a theme: three-dimensional representations of themselves as animals; play spaces for kids; terrariums of their hometowns; holiday-themed front porches; inventive snack trays for a party; wedding-cake toppers; and so on.
Overseeing this are Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman, who, as the former stars of “Parks and Recreation,” need no introduction in Cutesyville. She’s a sharply funny idol to young women everywhere, unerring in her quips and worldview, perfectly willing to mock her own inability to identify basic tools; he’s a feminist grizzly with crafting bona fides, a woodworker who builds canoes and furniture and, while blindfolded, can identify wood types by their smell.
Sure, they ought to have more challenging acting work to do and better places to be, but to their credit, Poehler and Offerman make “Making It” seem like the absolute best way to fritter away the pre-apocalypse.
“Let’s make a show that makes you feel good,” Poehler declares. Celebrating an air of juvenilia along with its admiration for honed skills, contestants win scout-like patches for individual rounds — a “fast craft” opens each competition, followed by a more complicated assignment that seems to take up most of the day (“Making It” never quite explains how long these efforts really take to finish).
After six episodes, the ultimate winner will get a paltry $100,000 — but, as Offerman correctly notes, “The real prize is a job well-done.” (He has never been more attractive as when his baby-blue eyes tear up as he tries to explain the ineffable relationship between the crafter and the creation.)
Poehler and Offerman fall into such a convincing attachment to the show’s super-nice contestants that neither can face the fact of a weekly elimination. The task instead falls to the show’s judges: Dayna Isom Johnson, a “trend expert” at the craft market website Etsy; and Simon Doonan, a designer famous for his Barneys New York store windows.
For all its mutual happiness, “Making It” could pay a little more attention to the actual work that goes into the crafting and the wide range of personal styles shown by the contestants. That’s allegedly why we’re all here. As fun as it is to watch Poehler and Offerman cut up, might there be more scenes of contestants actually cutting things up?
If a viewer has not been chronically surfing Etsy or otherwise indulging in the craft craze, it can be difficult to discern what’s successful here and what’s not. Baking competitions lack the ability to let us actually taste the winning and losing confections; fashion competitions never give us a practical sense of the movement and feel of fit and fabric.
“Making It” intriguingly drifts into an even more subjective zone. Jemma Olson, a 60-year-old grandmother from Rockwall, Tex. (a Dallas suburb), struggles to rise above her “hodgepodge” approach, as the show drops subtle hints that she just might not be hip (read: young) enough to craft in the modern day and the modern way.
Then again, Khiem Nguyen, a 28-year-old woodworker from Austin who oozes nerdy determination, gets dinged for coming up with ideas that are too stark and moody (read: art school). A surefire win comes from 43-year-old Los Angeles art teacher Billy Kheel, who builds a kid-sized taco truck as a play space, replete with felt taco shells and ingredients. Cool parents everywhere will immediately want one.
Somewhere in here is the ideal aesthetic. Doonan encourages fun and frivolity (“Robert,” he says to one contestant, “I’m a bit concerned about your addiction to balsa wood — how long has this been going on?”). Johnson bemoans anything she’s seen too much of already on Etsy, which could be anything, because she has seen everything.
“Making It” is wise to not turn these into matters of life or death. Its considerable charm rests in an essential recognition of the value in human endeavor, even the frivolous kind. The cutesiness epidemic rages on, but Poehler and Offerman aren’t faking it — there really is something beautiful and heartbreaking in the things we create on our own time.
Making It (one hour) premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on NBC.