There’s No Crying in Pottery!
A grown man crying over ceramics? Yes. Please.
There’s a tall, burly English man on my television who bears a slight resemblance to Gru, the super-villain from Despicable Me. His name is Keith Brymer Jones. He gingerly holds a vase in his large hands while his eyes shimmer with tears and his voice hitches as he marvels at the “fantastic” sponging pattern covering the piece.
Jones is a master potter and one of the primary judges on The Great Pottery Throw Down, a BBC “cousin” to the Great British Baking Show: a competition-style reality show which, in the case of Throw Down, brings twelve home potters to square off against one another in a series of weekly intensive “makes” and shorter challenges. Throw Down originally aired in 2015 and ran for three seasons before being cancelled in 2018, presumably by the same people who hate ice cream and rainbows. Fortunately, it was revived in 2020 on the British More4 network. Currently all five seasons are streaming on HBO Max, a network clearly doing God’s work by giving us this delicious, heartwarming show about the decorative arts and the people who love them at a time when it feels like every day is a 24-hour commute by garbage barge in July. The slap of clay is a balm for my weary-ass soul, and I know I’m not alone.
I had many conversations over the last few years with friends about cycling obsessively through all the seasons of the The Great British Baking Show with its lovely, sun-dappled tent and mixers the color of macarons; with its witty hosts and amiable, regular-people bakers pouring equal parts heart and sugar into their bakes, as a form of selfcare. Even the season filmed during the pandemic managed to marginalize the reality outside the tent so that you still felt wonderfully insulated, blissfully anesthetized from the pain and ugliness of it all in a gentle parade of cakes and breads and towering pastry sculptures.
But neither Baking Show nor Throw Down are pure escapism. No judgment to anyone (read: EVERYONE) craving hours hiding out from real life. If you’re not someone orbiting earth in your private rocket, everything is a lot right now. What makes a show like Throw Down feel nourishing is its blend of authentic emotion and values expressed through the practice of a creative artform. I don’t care how hard you try and sell me on watching someone’s YouTube channel about beekeeping or muscle car restoration, I want to be in the room with Bob Ross and his “happy little trees” that magically appeared from one swipe of his fan brush. Throw Down is as much about the vulnerability in the process of art making — the vision, the mistakes, the labor that does not look easy at all, the raw self displayed through the art, the hold-your-breath-and-hope-it-works-out uncertainty — as it is about the finished piece, which may or may not be a toilet. Truth: this is one of the staple challenges — commode, but make it a museum piece.
And that brings me to the show’s defiantly feel-good, nicey-ness. Throw Down is in line with a recent TV and film trend identified as “nicecore.” The film Coda and TV series such as Ted Lasso and Abbot Elementary (and I would also put Parks and Rec and The Good Place in this category) all share a kind of good vibes approach to their storylines and characters. While it’s hard to tell if the “nicecore” label is meant as a put-down or not (if so, I call “not nicecore”), it definitely captures the essence of what I recognize as a return to centering some fucking humanity, decency, and compassion in our media. It’s a sensibility that, I think and hope, is actually closer to the lives we experience than the ones pushed on us in darkly distorted glamor and allure by news and social media and shows like Ozark and Succession.
I admit that the first time the tall, burly British man became emotionally wrought over the craftsmanship of a jug handle, I was taken aback. My father came of age in the late-1950s. He was certainly influenced by a fair amount of John Wayne-style masculinity. He was not big on initiating emotional expression. Rather, it would leak out of him at various moments. We’d be watching a holiday movie like White Christmas and he’d be sitting in his easy chair like Archie Bunker snuffling and snorting and clearing his throat as if he’d inhaled a bowl of jalapenos instead of what was actually happening: forty years of unprocessed feelings clawing their way to the surface. We were a completely healthy family, pinky swear.
In my opinion, we don’t see men crying in whatever iteration that occurs often enough. I am not a psychologist, but I am going to make the unprofessional declaration that we are stupid about expressing healthy feelings. Women are constantly policed for being too angry or not angry enough; men are habitually shamed or discouraged for outwardly demonstrating their sensitivity and pain. Where has this gotten us? A glance around at the rise of “incel” and similar toxic groups tells me nowhere good, all caps, underscore.
Enter Jones who is truly and openly moved by the work of the home potters. His love and passion for the art radiates, which is inspiring in itself, but also for anyone who does any kind of creative art. No matter the medium, making art is hard. To see Jones who has been at his craft for more than thirty years come alive by witnessing it come alive in the hands of others, is energizing. The detail at the end of that handle, IS unreal, I find myself thinking as I also get a catch in my throat. Because the other thing happening here is Jones’ genuine admiration for the fellow artist. In one episode he became overwrought that one of the potters managed to get her piece completed at all after suffering a series of ceramically catastrophic setbacks. “I’m so proud of you. I really didn’t think you’d get anything out at all,” he chokes out between sniffles. And just like that WE ARE ALL CRYING NOW! Fair warning: anyone with dad/abandonment issues is going to need an emotional bite stick handy. Related: Keith Brymer Jones, please adopt me immediately.
One of the many qualities that instantly endeared me to Ted Lasso is the character’s core value, which is also the spine of the show: belief. Believe in yourself. Believe in others and help those around you do the same. Much like Baking Show, everyone on Throw Down is rooting for one another, everyone has a stake in each other’s personal success because why wouldn’t they? And this seems like a refreshingly much-needed normal take on life. On the surface, Throw Down is a crash course in pottery making at a very high level, but really it’s a masterclass in the transformative power of letting ourselves be seen — emotionally and creatively. The crying is just another layer of glaze on the vase.