Good news for lovers of Swiss rolls, soggy bottoms, and British baking: The Great British Baking Show is coming back to PBS for a third season, beginning July 1.
Its timing couldn't be better. The Great British Baking Show could have been purpose-built as an antidote for the summer of 2016.
As a reality TV star turned Republican Party nominee hurls invective at entire races and religions, an actual reality TV show will be there to offer a break: a journey to a place where kindness, civility, and talent rule, contestants pursue pure excellence rather than wealth, and, in defiance of reality TV tradition, everyone appears to be there to make friends.
That place is the Great British Baking Show tent, where some of the United Kingdom's best home bakers compete in a program that has become a phenomenon in the UK.
It's the perfect comfort TV for a hot, humid, Trumpy summer day. And if you don't understand how a baking show could be so absorbing that one-fifth of the total UK population watched the most recent season finale — more than the share of Americans who watched any 2015 TV event besides the Super Bowl — well, read on.
The Great British Baking Show pits British bakers against each other for the honor of… just winning, actually
Bake-Off (the British shorthand for the show, used here for brevity) usually begins with 12 amateur bakers who compete to be crowned the "star baker" of the week.
What does being "star baker" mean? It means… you were the best baker on the show that week. It does not imply you are the best baker in Britain, or the best home baker in the United Kingdom. Even if you win it all, there's no prize money waiting, although past winners have often used a victory as a springboard to open bakeries or catering businesses or to write cookbooks. The stakes, in other words, are pretty low.
A typical episode lasts for just under an hour and consists of three challenges:
1) The signature challenge: Bakers are given a specific bread, pie, or cake as an assignment — a custard tart, for example, or dinner rolls — and must design and execute a recipe featuring the flavor combinations of their choice. (They're given advance notice of the challenges so they can perfect recipes at home in advance of taping.)
2) The technical challenge: Bakers are asked to complete a difficult and fundamental recipe, such as a chocolate soufflé, with only bare-bones instructions and no advance warning. Unlike the signature challenge, which can produce very different variations on a theme (judges have to compare a chocolate tart to a lemon tart), the results of the technical challenge all look and taste very similar.
3) The showstopper challenge: Bakers must tackle a project that would usually be attempted only by professionals — such as a wedding cake, a tower of eclairs, or a tiered set of savory pies. Like the signature challenge, bakers get some warning so they can plan their recipes and approach.
The final products are judged by Mary Berry, a prolific cookbook author, and Paul Hollywood, an artisan baker. Two British comedians, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, keep the competition moving along.
The biggest drama ever on Bake-Off would hardly be noticeable on most reality TV shows
Here is the biggest controversy ever to hit The Great British Baking Show: During the fourth episode of the UK's sixth season in 2014 (warning: minor spoilers ahead for the first season aired in the US), the contestants made baked Alaska on the hottest day of the year. One contestant, Iain Watters, put his baked Alaska in the freezer to solidify some melted ice cream. A fellow contestant briefly removed it, she claims by accident.
The ice cream melted! Watters got frustrated, threw his baked Alaska in the trash, and then had to present the trash bin to the judges! Watters was sent home!
This is, by far, the most dramatic thing that has ever happened on Bake-Off. The British press dubbed it "bingate." The Guardian alone published 11 separate articles about the debacle.
The show's second biggest controversy involved two contestants who accidentally swapped custard while preparing a trifle. ("Swapped custard," by the way, sounds a bit like the kind of double entendre — "soggy bottoms," "ladyfingers," "dough balls" — that the Bake-Off hosts love to giggle about.)
That's it. That's all the drama. But there is tension. The Bake-Off challenges are difficult, and contestants are expected to execute them very quickly. I've made a wedding cake, and making the fillings and frosting alone took me roughly the same amount of time contestants have to bake and assemble an entire elaborate masterpiece.
The show's producers, though, generally seem to be working from a different playbook than the rest of television, one that doesn't include inviting mocking audience laughter or goading contestants into enmity. If a baker starts having a meltdown, hosts Giedroyc and Perkins stand next to them and swear or "put our coats over them" so that the footage can't be used, they told the Guardian in 2013.
While American reality TV contestants are expected to confidently declare that they're going to win it all, the standard attitude on Bake-Off is that bakers are just happy to be there and, gosh, they really hope they don't come in last. When they do, they nearly always accept the verdict with equanimity, grace, and a group hug.
Why is it so popular?
Bake-Off appeals to the best parts of our nature: the parts that love dessert and hate vicarious embarrassment.
Even if a contestant puts salt instead of sugar in an angel food cake — yes, this has happened — it's safe to assume the judges, Hollywood and Berry, are direct but not cruel. They see their role as evaluating the bakers' work, not competing for the most quotable, cruel, and cutting one-liners.
And the contestants are, by and large, people you actually want to root for. Bake-Off is refreshingly willing to cast the best bakers it finds, even if they're not blessed with conventional good looks or an outrageous personality. The producers dares to assume the audience will want to watch people who have gray hair or bifocals or a body mass index over 19, and their bet pays off.
Every season has a handful of men with super-masculine jobs — prison guard, builder, construction engineer — and the fact that these men also bake is treated as perfectly normal. (Its record on other kinds of diversity is spottier: Most contestants, though not all, are white and, while I'm no expert on the nuances of the British class system, appear to be broadly middle class.)
The contestants' refusal to engage in over-the-top reality show antics — they're allowed to go home during the week between episode tapings, rather than being confined in a house together, for one — is part of what makes watching Bake-Off the same kind of cathartic, ultimately comforting experience as reading a cozy mystery novel with a cup of hot chocolate. There might be some upsetting scenes, but you know that in the end, justice will be meted out and order restored.
How British is The Great British Bake-Off?
It's not just Brits who love Bake-Off. The Bake-Off recipe has been successfully exported to 20 other countries. Sadly, it flopped in the US. The uninspiring name The American Baking Competition didn't help. But the American version also tampered with the ethos. Contestants weren't allowed to go home on weekdays, as they are in the UK, and they were competing for something more than just honor. (Silvia Killingsworth's analysis of why the formula failed to translate, at The Awl, is well worth reading.)
But the Great British Bake-Off, in the original, is very, very British. The show evokes what social scientist Michael Billig has called "banal nationalism" — the little, seemingly apolitical things that make up national identity. Banal nationalism in the US is "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a baseball game on a summer afternoon, or the presidential habit of tacking "God Bless America" onto the end of a major speech, or that Coke commercial where everybody sang "America the Beautiful" in different languages.
Bake-Off is saturated in traditional ideas of Britishness. The competition takes place in a giant event tent pitched on the grounds of a grand British house. The original inspiration for the show was the baking competition at village fetes, the British version of the county fair. The interior of the tent is festooned with tiny Union Jack pennants. There are lots of Liberty of London–esque floral prints.
As the Guardian's Charlotte Higgins wrote in an insightful essay about the symbolism and success of Bake-Off:
Bake Off is pure English pastoral… It is Miss Marple. It is the National Trust. It is the first tableau in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics: a village cricket match played out in a green and pleasant land. It is the England that then prime minister John Major vowed would never vanish in a famous 1993 speech: "Long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – ‘old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’.
These signals mean that Bake-Off ends up as an arbiter not only of baking, but also of Britishness, at a time when Britain is increasingly anxious about immigration, European integration, and national identity.
The position Bake-Off has staked out in that debate is broadly inclusive, although it can seem a bit tokenizing: Contestants with South Asian heritage usually end up creating recipes that incorporate traditionally Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi flavors. The metaphor for assimilation can seem a little too on-the-nose, with the curry-spiced savory pie standing in for the melting pot.
Still, the most recent season in the UK ended up sparking a debate — a Great British Hot-Take-Off, if you will — on race, religion, and integration.
This is the season that's set to air in the US starting in July. It's hard to describe the details of the small media uproar without spoiling the outcome (a true shame, because this controversy was truly, gloriously absurd). But the issue at its heart — about whether representation for nonwhite, non-Christian residents of the UK represented progress or "political correctness" — will feel sadly familiar to most Americans.
Even on the world's most comforting reality show, it turns out, you can't entirely escape the echoes of the 2016 election cycle. Thankfully, though, the debate doesn't play out onscreen. In the world of Bake-Off, the cake's the thing. Nothing else really matters. No wonder it's such an immersive delight.
The first US season of The Great British Baking Show is available on Netflix and Amazon. The second is free to stream on PBS's website.