Thursday, May 05, 2016

Serving Up Cake and Pie Realness

Okay, confession: I’m not all sci-fi and comic books and depressing, dreary futurism. While the majority of my television habits definitely veer toward the, shall we say, anti-transcendental, I actually do have a profoundly lighter sensibility as well. Like a nice crème brulee, even my hardened exterior can sometimes crack and you can see the gooey, sweet center. My guilty pleasure is that there are actually some reality shows that I enjoy and key among them is that fluffiest of confections from our cousins overseas, The Great British Bake Off.

I love baking. I love figuring out how to put all these weird ingredients together in a way that will taste new and interesting. I love figuring out how it is that the right combination of certain elements mixed together will change their shape and properties. Basically, baking is like chemistry, but there’s a winner. Turn that philosophy into a literal competition and then add a dash of utterly charming hosts and I’m sold. Basta. Game over.

How many baking metaphors do we think I can work into this post?

For those not in the know, The Great British Bake Off is a competition series from BBC Two that has been running for six years. The tropes of all reality television are firmly entrenched – each season has around 12 amateur contestants who compete each week for two judges. Each week, one baker is eliminated until eventually someone wins. Sadly for those of us in the US, only one season is readily available without resorting to, ahem, unsavory means. Part of this stems from the fact that the phrase “bake off” is actually trademarked in the United States and owned by Pillsbury. More on that later.

In each show, contestants complete three challenges: a signature challenge where bakers show off something they are practiced at making, a technical challenge where bakers are tasked with creating something new with limited instructions and/or ingredients designed to test their skills, and a showstopper challenge where bakers are tasked with coming up with something that is both professional looking and tastes outstanding. Each bake is judged by two judges, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry.

Delightful British charm included.
Assisting the process is Mel and Sue, the show’s presenters who not only introduce each of the challenges but interact with the contestants during their bakes. Mel and Sue are noted mostly for their humor and encouraging nature (“There are two ways to make a Swiss roll,” they tell contestants in one episode. “First of all, you push Roger Federer down a hill. Secondly, a lovely thing involving sponge and jam.”), though they have detractors as well.

Mostly from people who hate life.

Certainly there is no shortage of cooking competitions in the US or England for that matter. What sets The Great British Bake Off apart from the rest, however, is the general tone of the show. You guys, it’s so… fricking… nice. We are conditioned to watch competitions for the drama produced. American audiences in particular expect to see backstabbing! Alliances! Tears! Egos! Bake Off refreshingly eschews all of that. Contestants are kind to one another. They help each other out. There is no incentive to gang up on each other and force someone out of the competition. It’s telling that in six years of production, there has really only been one “oh no she better don’t” moment (somewhat affectionately referred to as “bin-gate” by devotees) showcased on the show. In fact, the most interpersonal tension the show has really managed to cook up is the occasional “smutty remarks” from show presenters Mel and Sue. And isn’t that about the most English form of protest you can imagine?

The pressure to be nice and kind to one another while under a deadline is INTENSE!

Even the setting, typically in a large baking tent is some utterly lovely English glade, is tailor-made for avoiding the traditional lighting and sound effects that create dramatic tension on so many other reality shows.  It’s all so… healthy. Which is ironic, given the metric ton of sugars and fats present in each episode. Which leads to the other thing about the show that is so lovely; the food. Seriously, you guys. This is food porn of the highest quality. Behold:

This is basically straight up hardcore porn for me. #sorrynotsorry

So why has a show so remarkably delicious not taken off in the US? Well, partially due to legal concerns. As mentioned earlier, Pillsbury owns the rights to the phrase “bake off” in the US, forcing the show when it has aired in the States to air under the name The Great British Baking Show. A US version was attempted in 2013 called The American Baking Competition, which should be a case study in exactly how to use marketing to utterly water down a title. The show was hosted by Jeff Foxworthy, for reasons surpassing understanding, and imported Paul Hollywood but not Mary Berry. Which was clearly another wrong step. The show failed to find an audience, likely not only due to its lack of the same English charm as its parent show, but also due to its comparatively undramatic nature. Because this is America and we can’t have nice things.

Still, do yourself a favor and watch this damn show. It’s just so ridiculously charming. And enjoy watching the loads and loads of baked goods assembled before your eyes, ever alluring, ever unobtainable, ever interfering with your summer beach goals. 

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