The emotional balm of The Great Pottery Throwdown

Dear Willow:

If you guys are like me and need a little emotional balm of the televisual variety, let me suggest The Great Pottery Throwdown.

The format will be familiar to any viewers of The Great British Baking Show, probably because it’s produced by the same company, so just substitute ceramics for baked goods. Each episode has a “main make” combined with assorted side challenges, at the end of which, one participant is declared “top potter” and another is sent home.

The main makes range from things like a full tea set (including toast holder) to an actual toilet, and while doing pottery is less familiar to most of us than baking and eating, for my money, Pottery Throwdown is more interesting than the baking show precisely because of that lack of familiarity. Namely, ceramics are kind of crazy.

Unlike baking, where the ultimate failures are directly traceable to specific problems (underproved, underbaked, etc.), sometimes the ceramics go kaflooey for no reason other than sometimes ceramics go kaflooey. The post-kiln firing moment of every episode is genuinely tense, as we find out if someone’s piece exploded or if the glazes performed as hoped. Each season has a “raku” challenge which involves an ultra-hot kiln (up to 1200 centigrade) from which the objects are plucked before being plunged in vats of flammable materials (hay, newspaper clippings, dried seaweed), and then cooled, after which you sand off the carbon and see what you have. Raku week is awesome.

The baking show has Paul Hollywood, but The Great Pottery Throwdown is even better with judge Keith Brymer Jones, a potter and ceramics designer whose signature is not a Hollywoodian handshake, but is instead a spontaneous bursting into tears in appreciation of a contestant’s successful (or not) battle to bring art of out clay. You would think that, after almost 30 episodes over three seasons, it would get old to see a hulking man tear up over a teacup, but it does not.

I’m envious of Brymer Jones’ access to his own emotional response to the artistic impulse. As someone who periodically aspires to create art (through writing), I’m more embarrassed by the urge than anything because it feels like an indulgence. (I’m midwestern, sue me.) Brymer Jones, on the other hand, wears his appreciation at the surface of everything he does, choking out an “It’s fantastic!” as tears well. The most amazing part is that the reaction is in response not to the artistic result, but to the attempt itself. Rather undistinguished pieces can trigger tears as long as the struggle of creation is apparent.

Another superiority to Paul Hollywood, who only talks a good game on the show, is that in many episodes Brymer Jones gets on the wheel himself to demonstrate one of the side challenges. It’s like watching a magic trick to see him make a vase or jug or bowl out of a lump of clay in a handful of minutes. You know he’s good because, during the demonstration, the camera cuts to a shot of the contestants sharing WTF looks of admiration as Brymer Jones shapes the clay.

Similar to The Great British Baking Show, the contestants bond over the course of the competition, which makes later eliminations fraught viewing. The absence of prize money leaves the stakes right where they should be: rooted in intrinsic motivation to make the best thing you can. There’s lots of cooperation and mutual support, and if you despair about the cruelty that people are capable of visiting on each other, the contestants of The Great Pottery Throwdown provide an antidote.

I have even one more reason to appreciate the show in that Kathy (my wife) has become a pretty darn good amateur potter over the last several years, and seeing the show has given me a much greater appreciation for what she’s achieved, moving from some lopsided (but charming!) mugs to efforts people will actually pay for.

The Great Pottery Throwdown is on HBO Max, which we fortunately already had a subscription for, rather than having to add yet another streaming service. My only advice is to ration the episodes, rather than binging them. We’ve exhausted our supply, and life isn’t quite the same.

Maybe we’ll just start over from the beginning.

May your clay be centered on the wheel,

John

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