Baking Impossible: The great nerdish bake-off for the engineering set


Structural integrity, physics, and load-bearing properties—how often do you see reality TV series that reward contestants’ careful engineering efforts? And how often do you see those creations subsequently picked apart with a fork and tasted by judges?

I’m not exactly sure how Netflix’s algorithms, the ones that pore over millions of hours of viewers’ watching habits and guess what we’ll love next, settled on the idea of combining Top Chef and Mythbusters. But as I settle into the oncoming gloom of fall and look for series to watch with non-nerds in my life, I’m convinced that new series Baking Impossible is a good idea.

Having now watched a few episodes, I can safely recommend this as one of the better nerd-fluent reality series out there—even if it’s occasionally too cheesy for its own good.

“Screwdrivers and spatulas down”

In this eight-episode series, Netflix dumps contestants into a massive lab decked out with everything a hobbyist or a baker could want. On one side, the lab is covered in laser cutters, 3D printers, and jigsaws. Oversized ovens, industrial-grade mixers, and a massive pantry fill out the other side. Each competing team has one established baker and one award-winning engineer, and every episode asks the teams to design and produce some sort of elaborate object that does three things: tastes good, looks good, and fulfills a defined function.

As an example, the series’ first episode revolves around each team building a working sailboat out of food. It must be almost entirely edible, with the exception of whatever remote-control function operates its steering, and it must traverse a 20-foot pool of water with only a gust of wind as propulsion. (Merely floating won’t do the trick; each boat needs legitimate sails to both catch a gust of wind and then subsequently go down as a tasty amuse-bouche.)

On a sheer reality TV level, Baking Impossible passes the crucial “no fast-forward needed” test. Most network reality series pad their runtimes with invented drama or overlong personal-backstory segments, arguably to fill out an exact episode length for the sake of mid-episode commercial breaks. Thanks to this series’ emphasis on the creation and crafting process, and its ability to alternate between two types of crafting (functionality and flavor), each episode is generally deft about making us wonder, “Are they really going to pull off this edible such-and-such?”

Quick personal stories pop up between the teams’ drafting and blocking-out phases, and they’re tidy, entertaining punctuation marks, as opposed to shrug-worthy attempts to invent drama. The results are more American than British, so if you’re looking for the softest, fluffiest reality TV, Baking Impossible might not be your bag—especially in the rare cases when a baker and an engineer disagree on a project’s execution. But as a whole, it’s certainly less catty and aggressive than your average Bravo reality series.

Some robots cannot drive over roads covered in marshmallows

The show is at its best when we see each team of randomly assigned contestants interact. More often than not, teammates value each other’s expertise, and Netflix’s editing stresses each project’s ideation, execution, and rapid-fire revision process. The scope of these projects is massive, since teams get eight-hour time limits to complete each episode’s challenge, yet both the big picture and the nitty-gritty details get coverage. Then we’re off—usually with neat camera cuts from one team to the next—as each decides which food items make the most sense for the project.

Every contestant’s creation, from the most impressive to the most humdrum, finally takes its time on the catwalk, whether as a technical demonstration or a camera lingering on the “centerpiece” dessert within each edible creation. On a personal level, cooking and baking reality series drive me nuts when I’m looking at food I cannot eat, and thus, I appreciate Baking Impossible‘s gimmick of thoroughly demonstrated gadgets. That gives me more to, ahem, bite into—especially when the series dedicates an entire episode to satisfying, food-filled Rube Goldberg devices.

But this is also an unprecedented series concept, and it needed a little more engineering of its own before moving into production. The biggest issue is that a majority of the competitors fail each episode’s testing demands, in spite of the elaborate robo/snack hybrids they build. The prowess is clearly there, with the baking side consisting largely of bakery owners and the engineering side made up of decades-long toy manufacturers (and even an engineer from NASA’s Artemis project). But the demands placed upon them are perhaps too steep.

The worst challenge sees every team having to build a mobile robot that can drive across an obstacle course. But the teams only get a vague warning about how demanding this course will be. They don’t really know what to spend their limited time and driving energy on, and that episode’s vehicles mostly prove too unwieldy to complete the track. Only two out of eight robots could finish the course.

The series’ judges and ever-present host are all a little too eager to nudge non-scientific viewers with groan-worthy puns and middle-school explanations of physics. And they overuse of the awkward phrase “bake-ineers”—which sounds less like the series’ concept and more like the cookie-making staff at Epcot Center.

None of that is enough to turn me off from casual viewing of the series, and the hosts are shameless about this all being tongue-in-cheek. But engineering-minded viewers should expect to cringe at least once per episode.

Verdict: A perfectly fine snack

Baking Impossible season one trailer

I’ve watched a lot of bad reality TV, and I am not sure I’ve ever been more pleasantly surprised by a new series—I had heard nothing about this one in advance. Still, I don’t want to overhype the series, especially due to its first-season hiccups.

But if you already have access to a paid Netflix subscription (one way or another), I see zero reason not to put this series’ first episode on in the background to see if it charms you too.

The first six episodes of Baking Impossible‘s first season are currently live on Netflix. Its final two episodes go live on Wednesday, October 13.

Listing image by Netflix



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