The Bun Also Rises: Why We Love 'The Great British Baking Show'
We have to posit first that baking itself can feel like magic. A simple loaf of bread might include only flour, water, yeast and salt, and it can still transform from a sticky blob to a pillowy ball with a texture unlike anything else you've ever handled to a final product that's perfectly crisp on the outside, perfectly tender on the inside. Not only that, but it will audibly crackle at you as it cools on the counter. It will pass through a perfect moment for consumption, and then that moment will be gone.
Let's posit, too, that American popular culture tends to both idealize and stereotype British people as more genteel, more refined, more intellectual, more snobbish, more artsy, more mannered, and more reluctant to do anything distasteful than Americans are. It's mostly a lie, like so many of our patronizing cultural swoons, but it's persistent.
So despite the fact that the UK has always, always had just as much of a tradition of distasteful reality television as we do, perhaps it makes sense that for a subset of Americans, the perfect refuge from everything we find not genteel, not refined, not intellectual, not snobbish, not artsy, not mannered, and utterly eager to do everything distasteful would turn out to be a show where British people bake things.
In the UK, it was called The Great British Bake Off, but here in the United States, the very same episodes air on PBS as The Great British Baking Show. (It's been widely reported that this is the result of Pillsbury's trademark of "Bake-Off" in the U.S., but that's one of those things that's tough to pin down for sure.) The timeline and terminology get confusing, because the first three seasons have never aired in the U.S., but PBS ran the fifth U.K. season as the first American season, then went backwards and ran the fourth U.K. season as the second American season. What's premiering on Friday night on PBS is the sixth (and most recent) U.K. season, airing as the third PBS season. Got that? (They owe us three missing seasons, is really the point, but try not to think about it.)
Each season features twelve amateur bakers — often entirely self-taught — who compete in a series of weekend events focused on various elements of baking. One week they'll do bread, one week pastries, one week biscuits, and so forth. Each week, within that theme, there are three challenges. The Signature Bake takes a basic item capable of many variations and challenges the bakers to create, for instance, a Swiss roll or a custard tart. The Technical Bake is a nerve-racking segment in which the contestants encounter a set of ingredients and an incomplete recipe (generally more incomplete as the season progresses and the challenges get harder) from which they have to produce a very particular result, which might be a specialty item they've never even heard of that's meant to have specific qualities. And the Showstopper Challenge, just as it sounds, is the time for them to make a spectacular tower or display or other show-offy item suitable for impressing friends and family. (Example: a "celebratory loaf.") And each week, someone goes home at the end.
You might, at this point, be thinking about Top Chef, or Gordon Ramsay, or any of the many competitive shows on the Food Network. You might be thinking, "I never find those compelling; how is this different?"
Well, let me put it this way: I don't know that it's more exciting, but there are days in which you find yourself more in the mood for a relaxing evening having drinks with low-key, charming friends than for an hour spent watching a skunk and a rat fight over who gets to drag a rotten potato into a hole in the ground.
OK, I also like Top Chef quite a lot, so that's not entirely fair, but it trades on waiting for unpleasant personalities to be laid low at times; I think anyone involved would admit that. It's been very, very hard for American unscripted television to employ pure gentleness without cloying sentimentality, to balance kindness and bluntness. These are the things that, with the magic of good bread, The Great British Baking Show does effortlessly.
Against all odds of popular media in general, television in particular, reality television in more particular, and competitive reality television in most particular of all, the secret ingredient turns out to be nuance. No, really! Nuance! It's very rare for a cake or a plate of cookies to be judged all good or all bad. The verdict is usually mixed: your cake has a good flavor, but it's overbaked. Your cupcake is disappointing, but your frosting is delicious. The pastry should be a little thinner, but on the whole, it's lovely.
And along the way, the audience gets to be pleased more than displeased with the company. There's almost never a contestant who seems like they'd be a disagreeable person to have lunch with. Most are stealthily, self-deprecatingly funny at times. They congratulate each other on their successes and commiserate about struggles, not in the manner of uplift-driven phonies, but the way an ideal group of colleagues would. They often nervously look to each other for advice: "How long are you baking this?" "Is yours sort of dry?" "I'm just hoping for the best."
We all do this, right? We fumble, we ask friends for help, we hope for the best. Unlike cooking, which can often be fiddled with along the way, checked and rechecked and iterated, baking involves precision and a kind of prayer: it's in the oven; there's nothing you can do. You are hoping for success, and in its absence, you are hoping for support. For that reason, as television, the show is surprisingly stacked with genuine suspense. Will the tart come out of the pan? When they slice into that cake, will it have the checkerboard pattern it's supposed to?
Judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood play at being the punishing, fearsome authority figures of the piece, and they've got the expertise and the high standards for it. But both, really, are always on the side of the contestants. Both hope every time they bite into your fruit pie that it's sweet and perfect. Both are perfectly willing to admit when what you proposed sounded like it would be a disaster but turned out wonderfully. Both are bummed when you guess wrong in the technical challenge. And hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins circulate like excited big sisters, teasing and cheering and punning and, at the end of each week, crushing the departing contestant in a big hug.
What emerges over the course of the show is that it doesn't only have a style; it has an ethic. Mary and Paul do not fall victim to the misdirection of small but spectacular-looking mistakes. If the custard in the middle of whatever you're making doesn't quite set, the entire thing may collapse and run all over the counter, but they'll taste it anyway! And they'll tell you that your custard not setting isn't necessarily a bigger mistake than anything else; it just looks worse. If you can't get your cake put together, they'll still taste the layers. You may not be out. Do not lose heart. Do not lose heart.
Don't laugh, but this is life, in a way, as we all hope for it to be. You screw up, but not entirely. You see your hoped-for result dashed on the counter in a pile of goop, but someone says, "I see what you put into this; I see what you intended." Someone you trust who is better than you are at whatever you're trying to do says, "We both see what you did wrong; I can help you identify what you did right." You still might lose. You still might go home crying with disappointment. But someone will have said, "Next time, take it out of the oven five minutes sooner and you'll really have something." It's a show of such ... hope. Hoping everybody else is going to be willing to try the imperfect layers of your particular not-quite-put-together cake is often the only way to get through the day, after all.
It will also really make you want to learn to make macarons. Though that might be just me.
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