Partway through the first season of The Great Pottery Throwdown, some 5 years ago, my wife turned to me and said she liked it even more than The Great British Bake Off. It was the early days of our marriage, and I was faintly aware that long term relationships may entail dealing with fits of irrationality from one’s partner from time to time. After all, this was the heyday of BBC-era Bake Off, fresh from Nadiya’s tear-inducing triumph. It defined the format of reality TV as utopian collectivist fantasy; it seemed impossible it could be usurped by a wide-eyed spin-off about ceramics.
The format of The Great Pottery Throwdown is straightforward and comfortingly familiar – after all it’s made by the same production company that churns out both Bake Off and The Great British Sewing Bee. Each week, potters take on two challenges: a “main make,” following a brief from the judges to design and create decorative and/or functional objects, from tea sets to toilets. As this is typically a multi-day process, proceedings are punctuated with a technical challenge sprung on the contestants. Often this is in the form of the titular “throwdown” that sees them race against the clock to throw a multitude of egg cups or dinner plates or even bricks.
Like its baking brethren, Throwdown’s central drama, such as it exists, comes from the alchemical excitement of shoving something into a very hot oven and not quite knowing what will come out at the end of it. What it lacks in dazzling cakeography, it more than makes up for with sculptural forms ranging from the practical to the fantastical, embellished by glazes and oxides to stunning effect. It is also a far safer prospect to watch while you are hungry.
As my affection for Bake Off has waned since its cross-network hop and lineup changes, I have found myself susceptible to the charms of this plucky upstart. With any successful TV competition, it’s the recurring elements that build a sense of anticipation, and I’ve begun to realise that in pretty much every sense the Throwdown is growing into a superior example of the art form.
Biscuit week begins to look a little limp in comparison to Raku week, where pots are taken straight from the kiln and dunked into piles of combustible material to create unpredictable surface patterns (and flames). The personal shame of a soggy bottom is smallfry next to a cracked fruit bowl that literally comes apart in the judges’ hands.
Speaking of judges, while Mary Berry can obviously never be bettered, there is much to be said for Keith Brymer-Jones, aka “the crying judge,” who cries at least twice every episode while appraising everyone’s efforts, and I’m sure we can all agree that male tears are a far more worthwhile currency than the much devalued Hollywood Handshake. Triggers for crying can be anything: the delicate splatter of glaze across a vase, the weight of a teacup or just because someone tried really, really hard.
Which brings us to the earnestly hard-working stars of the show: the contestants, a term I use loosely. Like all of the handful of competition shows that I enjoy, Throwdown contestants are largely in denial of the competitive element of their TV adventure. While the mental and physical demands of pottery are such that there’s little time to be spared for critiquing a fellow potter’s work, everyone seems finely attuned to the slightest panicky yelp that might afford them the chance to rush across the studio to rescue some sagging terracotta. On a recent episode when a guy was trudging back and forth to the drying room carrying pieces to help a late-running competitor, technician Rose had to gently remind him “you know this is a competition?” Although I suspect that in truth she was reminding us, the viewer, that we’re watching a construct and we should really stop weeping over the simple humanity of people helping each other out.
If I was teetering on the edge of declaring this masterpiece TV, the latest series currently running on Channel 4 in the UK has been nudging me ever closer, thanks to some inspired host and judging changes and a small but noticeable uptick in queerness.
New host Siobhán McSweeney (aka Sister Michael in Derry Girls) brings exactly the sort of schoolmistress-slash-Rosie-the-Riveter energy that I never knew I needed to the show. Her constant deadpanning allows room for the natural innuendo and absurdity of proceedings to breathe. This season sees former kiln boy Rich Miller promoted to judge, with his place taken by trans kiln girl Rose Schmits, a talented artist in her own right.
On the contestant roster we have a couple of gay guys, and the welcome introduction of the show’s first out queer female competitor, Sal (no relation). Her first challenge showcased not only her formidable potting skills but also her obsession with her dog, so she’s definitely one to watch. The diversity is far from perfect; the requirements of pottery as a hobby means amateurs will skew even more middle class than many similar shows, though I’m not sure that’s a valid excuse for the overwhelming whiteness.
What finally swung it for me was at the end of a recent episode when, out of nowhere, Dolly Parton appeared. I had to rewind and watch a few times to check I wasn’t in the middle of a fever dream. Sure enough, in the next episode Dolly appeared via video link with words of encouragement to our contestants as they tackled a challenge to sculpt musical legends, including herself (she did warn they might need a lot of clay for certain parts of her).
Perhaps I needed to be bludgeoned by a pair of Dolly Parton busts to see the truth, but the reality is inescapable: The Great Pottery Throwdown is the heir apparent to the competitive comfort TV throne.
The Great Pottery Throwdown seasons 1-3 are available to stream in the US on HBO Max. Seasons 3 and 4 (currently showing) are available in the UK on Channel 4.
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