Wake and Bake
I am, to put it mildly, extremely distrustful of reality shows, especially of the competitive variety. Leaving aside the fact that, due to behind-the-scenes staging and manipulation, they rarely qualify as either ‘reality’ or ‘competition’, they also tend to have the nastiest hallmarks of unscripted television: pandering to the lowest common denominator, easy villains, cheap drama, artificial tension, and pointless hostility, all contributing to the conclusion that this kind of ‘reality’ is something we should strenuously avoid. (Even ‘unscripted’ is, to borrow Lyotard’s nice language, a phrase in dispute, given that much of the conversation we see on screen is as canned as a Libby’s green bean.) Even cooking shows fall victim to these pitfalls, turning the otherwise fine Gordon Ramsay into a belligerent, bellowing lunatic, or forcing Anthony Bourdain to make desperately wry comments on the artificiality of the format.
This is why, when reports started to come from my favored corners of the Internet that there was such a thing as The Great British Bake-Off and that it was amazing, I was highly dubious. For one thing, the subject didn’t interest me much; while I fancy myself a decent amateur cook, I’ve never been any good at baking, a trade whose requirements of extreme precision and a scientific mindset I will never possess. For another, most cooking competitions are dreadful, and the ones that I like demand that I either embrace their silliness (as with Iron Chef) or tolerate their transgressions (Top Chef). Add to that the fact that its production company, Love Productions, is responsible for such dubious fare as The Baby Borrowers, Famous, Rich and Homeless, and Make Bradford British, and I didn’t think this show would really be for me.
Well, GBBO, mea culpa. Mea maxima fucking culpa.
The Great British Bake-Off (or, as it’s called here in the United States to prevent exactly the kind of masturbation jokes you’re already coming up with in your head, The Great British Baking Show), has instantly become one of my favorite reality shows of all time. It’s hosted by two entertaining comics, Mel Giedroyc and the always-fun Sue Perkins, who are hamming it up and having a ball, alternately delivering corny puns and left-field sexual innuendo; and it’s judged by the unlikely pair of master baker Paul Hollywood (yes, that’s his real name), who, insofar as such a thing is possible, plays the Simon Cowell role, and Mary Berry. Berry, who has an equally unlikely but nonetheless actual name, is a respected food writer who has penned dozens of books over the years, starting with a Hamlyn All Colour edition on cakes way back in 1970, and in a way, she’s an even harsher judge; though she’s not as openly pugnacious as Hollywood, her matronly, oh-so-British demeanor makes it seem all the more devastating when she doesn’t like something.
The contestants start each season as a dozen self-trained bakers from all over the U.K., of various age groups, ethnicities, and professions; there’s obviously no attempt to make them camera-sexy, and they seem to come from a genuinely diverse family portrait of Britain circa 2016: there have been teenagers and retirees, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews, men and women, gay people and straight people, toffs and naffs, and people of every color. If there are common threads, they all tend to be extremely precise and creative — a fitting mix of artistic types and STEM people — and they’re almost all charming and engaging. Each week, they are issued three baking tasks: a specific type of baked good, with which they have a fair amount of creative leeway; a compulsory “technical challenge”, in which they must all make a particular recipe assigned by the judges in the exact same manner; and a “show-stopper”, in which the gloves are off and they race to create the most outlandish and impressive treat imaginable. At the end of each show, the best contestant is awarded the title of “star baker”, and the worst is banished from the program.
It’s all pretty simple and familiar territory, but the angels are in the details. Berry and Hollywood are tough but fair judges, and never grandstand; and each show is a new start for everyone, regardless of past performance. There’s no apparent reward for winning the show other than pride, and star backer means pretty much nothing (though my all-time favorite contestant, season 5’s jolly construction worker Richard, took to wearing a cheap tin sheriff’s star when he’d get the nod) — which may account for the fact that the GBBO contestants seem to genuinely like each other. They do things you almost never see on other cooking competitions: they laugh, chat, and even sing together; they help each other out; they joke about their work and seem genuinely sad to see each other go. There are definite characters on the show — spice enthusiast Chetna, with her orange Chuck Taylors and chipper attitude; froglike golem Howard, who had the mannerisms of an incompetent serial killer; blustery commandant Norman. But no one is brought in specifically to create drama; there are no prima donnas, attention-hounds, or shit-stirrers. Just a lot of charming people who love to bake.
This isn’t to say that the show lacks tension; it can get incredibly nerve-wracking when time is ticking away and you have no idea if your favorite contestant’s ridiculously elaborate éclair tower is going to collapse under its own weight or be inedible thanks to insufficient proving (a concept I only learned about thanks to this show). It’s just that it’s not trying to push any agenda other than what it is: a friendly baking competition. Its biggest ‘controversy’ was whether or not Sue Perkins makes too many naughty puns, and its biggest ‘scandal’ was one contestant tossing his project in the trash because it hadn’t come out right. It seems to be beamed onto our TVs from an alternate universe where people are actually nice to each other from time to time. That alone is enough to conquer both my distaste for reality competitions and my general diffidence towards sweets; add to it the sheer skill of the bakers (it’s like watching a good athletic competition at times, the purity of the technique overwhelms any indifference towards the object of the game), the gorgeously bucolic country setting, the grand yet inconsequential detail and (un)importance of it all, and the winning personalities of so many of the contestants, and you have a recipe that can’t fail. Hurry up, now, folks, and bring me Series 7.