‘The Great Pottery Throw Down’ Is Sadly No ‘Great British Bake Off’
The latest British reality TV import, now streaming on HBO Max, sees potters square off against one another. Sadly, it lacks the charm and fun of its baking brethren.
Is the latest British cute reality TV import, The Great Pottery Throw Down, for me? I thought so—I knit, do a bit of woodworking, live in a quaint town full of odd craftspeople (one of our most famous residents is the late Beatrice Wood, an unconventional potter who lived to 105), and am a design enthusiast. And yet, the much-anticipated show—which has already been on for several seasons in the U.K.—left me not merely cold, but bothered.
The show’s wildly successful cousin, The Great British Bake Off, has charmed Americans so much that it garnered its own (bad) U.S. spin-off, which didn’t work because American reality TV culture is, generally speaking, too competitive and id-driven to be delightful. The British original, however, provides lessons in good humor and warmheartedness even in the face of failure. The fact that all the participants are amateurs who stand to win nothing but the honor of having been selected as the best makes the show more about imaginative gestures than self-promotion.
While The Great Pottery Throw Down naturally has many of the same ingredients as its forebear—including slightly bizarre challenges made to test the skill and will of its participants—it somehow comes off as gratingly traditional and only begrudgingly appreciative of art. Contestants are technically amateurs, but some of them have been potters their whole lives. The judges, studio potter Kate Malone and potter and ceramic designer Keith Brymer Jones, are frequently obsessed with perfection and standardization, not necessarily craft but convention. This works for the Bake Off because food, especially baked goods, have to look pretty in very specific ways to seem appetizing on screen; and literal taste adds an added level of evaluation to support those who take wild risks with form.
Of course, making ceramics is a different affair altogether. Through three seasons of the show, it was rare to see any truly exciting work, though I did quickly learn what was acceptable to the judges. Most of what won out was largely errorless and undaring, resembling the sort of thing you might find in an overpriced boutique in a tourist town.
As I continued on my binge, I kept hoping for signs of a Doyle Lane-type. Lane, a Black ceramist who went severely under-recognized during his lifetime, did commercial projects while sustaining a studio art practice in Los Angeles throughout the mid-century. His weed pots, tiny vases suited for a single flower (or weed), are spectacular in their mix of small simplicity and visionary grandness. Co-judge Malone is an artist herself, and I thought she might be looking for one, too. But The Great Pottery Throw Down is quintessentially British and perhaps in one of the most disappointing ways: It condemns outsider inspiration while lionizing rote proficiency. And in the course of that suppression, the show itself evades any true sense of charm.
But I know I’m likely to be fairly alone in these thoughts—most people don’t have such strong opinions about craft, and I began by watching the show with my partner, a sharp-eyed amateur potter who couldn’t stand what she was seeing either. She bailed out after episode one when (spoiler alert) a technically shaky potter willing to take amusing artistic risks was summarily booted over a legacy potter who had huge cracks in his hideously-designed work that did not even faintly recall wabi-sabi. I had to soldier on, but the residue of this first round cut stayed with me—there was no room for fun in the throwdown.