While saltier reality shows including Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise and HBO Max’s “FBoy Island” are still very much a thing — and very popular — there has also been a bumper crop of “nice” reality programming infiltrating the arena.
And, it turns out, Television Academy voters are fans. A look at the reality categories in this year’s Emmys race include Netflix’s A-for-effort baking competition series “Nailed It!,” the long-running, pride-focused VH1 series “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and both NBC’s mentorship musician series “The Voice” and its goofysweet crafts program “Making It.” Even the vibe of perennial Emmy nominee, Bravo’s “Top Chef,” comes with a message of respect for the artistry of cooking.
“Our brand is to do aspirational programming,” says Jo Sharon who, with Casey Kriley, is the co-CEO of production company Magical Elves and an exec producer on “Nailed It!” and “Top Chef.” “Across the board, we are always making sure that our shows are not mean-spirited. Pretty much any show, you can kind of take in that direction. But it’s really important to us that we’re telling more 360-degree aspirational stories inside it.”
A lot of this stems from the hosts. In Magical Elves’ programming, “Top Chef” has Emmy-nominated host Padma Lakshmi, who can be as sly with her humor as much as she is pragmatic about the challenges and contestants. “Nailed It!’s” Emmy-nominated host is comedian Nicole Byer, who, Sharon says, delivers laughs that are anything but mean-spirited.
“She is very celebratory. She truly loves to be on the set,” Sharon adds. “She doesn’t make fun of people.”
This is crucial, Sharon and Kriley stress, for a program about people who fail at re-creating Pinterest-worthy treats.
“If people were going to come on and be vulnerable and try to do something they weren’t good at, we knew that making fun of them was not going to be enjoyable to watch, be well-received or be anything we wanted to be part of,” Sharon says.
“Making It’s” Emmy-nominated hosts Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman have a running bit that they hate to send people home — so much so that the premiere of the third, and most-recent, season not only didn’t send any crafters packing but also introduced two more contestants to the workroom.
Executive producer Nicolle Yaron says Poehler, who executive produces the show through her Paper Kite shingle, pitched it to NBC development executives as, “I want you to picture a show with no stakes” and “I literally want to make a show about watching paint dry.” They bought it in the room. It also has a spinoff series, “Baking It,” on Peacock. The similarly whimsical baking series is hosted by the equally charismatic Maya Rudolph and Andy Samberg.
“Paper Kite’s ethos is that we love an earnest character, whether it’s scripted or unscripted,” says “Making It” executive producer Kate Arend, who is also that production company’s co-head of film and television. As she and Yaron are also executive producers of “Baking It,” the two say they hope to find a way for a crossover episode.
The push for positivity and the desire to help others shine can also affect casting. Obviously, “Making It” producers have a pre-show vetting period in which they eliminate artists even before they get to show off their work on screen.
This can weigh on your consciousness, Yaron says, noting that in casting it’s hard to decide who not to include since so many people deserve the spotlight.
“Sometimes the stories about real people are better than anything you can write,” she says, adding that she wants to be able to “show off that stay-at-home mom who is amazing at balloon sculptures.”
Fun and positive shows also have the double reward of highlighting diversity and inclusiveness in a safe and welcoming setting. The most recent season of “Making It” spotlighted taxidermist Becca Barnet, who was open about her history with depression, and several “Top Chef” alums, including Season 15 and 16’s chef Brother Luck, have also spoken out about mental health. Yaron was also one of the first hires for “The Voice,” for which the producers made a “conscious choice” to call the aspiring musicians “artists’’ instead of “contestants.”
Meanwhile, every member of Magical Elves’ executive team is either female, BIPOC or queer and 75% of their shows’ casts are women and/or people of color, while 50% are openly members of the LGBTQ+ community.
“When we start casting, we’re looking for real people who have a lot of layers and have something to share with the world and and share with other people,” Kriley says. “What really drives the narrative in all our shows is to find those amazing people who are kind enough to participate in our shows and be open enough to really share their stories and their journey on the show.”
As with a lot of people, the Magical Elves team did some soul-searching during the pandemic and as the Black Lives Matter movement became more visible. Sharon and Kriley say, for “Top Chef” in particular, this meant looking at how they tell stories as much as who they hire, cast and the challenges they offer each episode. The results mean that “all of a sudden, we had more different types of cuisine and more interesting POVs from our guest judges based on their culture and history,” Kriley says.
“We don’t really consider it to be ‘nice’ television,” she says. “But everyone in their lives goes through challenges and, in particular, in a competition like this. And the greatest moments in our lives of feeling joy and success is when you go through a challenge, yourself, and come out the other end — I still feel like there’s moments of tension and conflict in the show. But it’s much more similar to an Olympic athlete who goes through the highs and lows at this level and comes out on top of it.”
It can be hard to find a uniform challenge on shows such as “Making It,” in which every artisan comes from a different discipline. Yaron says the mantra on both “Making It” and “Baking It” is “that the project is the story and the story is the project.” She says this means they “try to tell the story of who these people are by the decisions that they make to what the prompt is of a challenge,” such as a first love or greatest memory.
The warmth of these shows has also brought in a new demographic: children. The producers had stories of a younger audience finding their shows and parents feeling that these are programs they can watch with their kids.
Fittingly, the producers also stress that there’s plenty of room in the reality TV sandbox in which everyone can play.
“I do think people want to see the nice stuff more,” Arend says, referencing Netflix’s “Love on the Spectrum” docuseries about people with autism. “There are some really cool shows out right now that make you feel good and make you cry; maybe in a good way.”
But, she quips, “They better never stop making ‘Real Housewives.’”