With a billion different ways to get content these days, I’ve stuck with Netflix for the long haul. Back in the day, I was a 3-disc-at-a-time card-carrying member – it was the only way to keep a steady stream of movies in my life.
These days, my disc subscription is long gone and I can barely find anything worth bingeing on the platform. The likes of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black are so few and far between (though I do have Stranger Things and The Get Down on my list), and the recommendations it serves up are so hit or miss, it’s not a service I rely on as much as I used to.
When something called The Great British Baking Show popped up as a show I might be interested in, I took the bait. It was a weekend several months ago that I had some time on my hands, so I queued up the first episode. By the end of the weekend, I’d watched the entire 10-episode season.
As someone who stays as far away from reality television as is humanly possible, it might seem odd that I’ve fallen so completely for this competition-focused serial. As someone so unabashedly a fan of many British exports, it might seem odd that I’d never heard of this one, which has actually been around for six whole seasons!
And yet, within an episode of this gem, I was entirely hooked. The premise is simple: twelve amateur bakers from all walks of life gather over the course of several weekend in The Tent, a pop-up set decked out with baking stations for each contestant. Each episode, centered around a single bakery theme, consists of three rounds: the signature dish, the technical challenge, and the show-stopper. At the end, a weekly Star Baker is named and another baker is sent home.
For example, an episode focusing on bread might include a signature “quick bread” (what we Yanks would know as yeast-free, not requiring any time to rise (or prove) and therefore “quick”), a technical challenge to craft the perfect baguette and a sculptural show-stopper combining several kinds of loaves.
The series is hosted by British comediennes Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, and judged by Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood (their real names!). As hostesses, Sue & Mel (apparently a comedic pair long before the show) bring just the right amount of scripted wit and improvised banter to keep things lighthearted during stressful moments. The two judges, established bakers and icons in their own right, are firm but generous in their review of each round. No matter how much of a mess a baker’s made of their final product, Mary Berry finds something positive to say about it. Though Paul can bit a bit more brutal, it’s always with a twinkle in his eye and a gentle nudge to do better.
These four personalities combined with the diversity of bakers and the pressure of the bakes (each is timed!) makes for a show as tastefully done as the bakes themselves. There’s enough drama to keep things interesting, but it never devolves into the critical, ugly type of competition American audiences are so used to. In fact, it’s not uncommon at all for one baker to help another as they struggle to place one cake layer onto another or make room for their ganache to set in the freezer. And at the end of the episode, the newly departed baker’s postscript is typically teary-eyed yet optimistic – grateful for the time they’ve had in The Tent and encouraging to those still there.
Over the course of each season, we watch bakers push themselves and grow their skills; they try new techniques and recipes, combine interesting ingredients and attempt to strike a balance between captivating the judges’ favor with ever more daring finished products and sticking with what they know they can solidly complete by the time the buzzer sounds. Shy, timid bakers come out of their shells. Logical, methodical bakers learn to go with the flow when things don’t go as planned. Confident bakers have their worlds shaken a bit during particularly challenging tasks and at least once each season, a baker surprises themselves with what they’ve managed to create.
The finale comes down to just three final bakers. Their families, all the departed contestants (and their families) gather on the grounds around The Tent to await the final Show Stopper bake and the announcement of the winner. We see them picnicking, playing lawn games and reconnecting with their former competition. And as the winner is crowned, the whole gathering swells with pride, cheering and celebrating. There’s no dog-eat-dog mentality here, no real losers in the end.
And I think that’s what I like best about the show (besides, you know, the chipper and prim British accents and vocabulary). Of course, it’s incredible to watch the sweet concoctions come into fruition. But I’m most enamored with the sheer charm of the whole show, from bakers to judges to end results. It focuses on accomplishment and effort over conniving and back-stabbing, and that makes it something worth savoring like a perfectly iced cake.
You can see a single season of TGBBS on Netflix, and the current U.S. season is also available on PBS. A new season launches on the BBC this week in the UK, and with six already out there (only three of which have broadcast in the U.S.), there are plenty more bakers to meet and bakes to enjoy!