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The Great British Baking Show and the value of small stakes

Returning to PBS for its fourth season stateside, the hit UK series has defied the rules of reality competition success.

The cast of The Great British Baking Show season 4.
The Great British Baking Show returns for Season 4 (season 7 in the UK) on Friday, June 16.

The Great British Baking Show is, on the surface, the most stressful show in the world. Twelve (occasionally 13) amateur bakers gather in a tent to spend 10 weekends baking everything from gingerbread sculptures to steamed buns. Judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood cast wary eyes over potential mistakes, and one bout of runny icing could get a contestant kicked out of the running for the title. There's even the obligatory time's-running-out theme song to heighten tension whenever things are down to the wire.

But bakers clap for one another, Berry and Hollywood are as likely to soothe nervous contestants as to question cocky ones, and that title amounts to a cake stand and some flowers. We're all in this for fun.

The Great British Baking Show (The Great British Bake Off in the UK) is empty of the backbiting or schadenfreude that many American reality shows use to ramp up dramatic tension. There are no twists built into its setup; contestants learn what two of each week's three baking challenges are ahead of time so they can practice at home, and there's no false scarcity driving contestants to fight over the last dozen eggs. It assumes that the pressure of doing your best is enough, and seems more invested in encouraging camaraderie than competition: Contestants regularly offer one another tips and even helping hands.

Half of the appeal of the Baking Show is that it's so genuine (maybe uncomfortably so for Americans used to cooking shows like Cutthroat Kitchen), which makes it all the more remarkable how deftly the show avoids treacle. The show has found success by knowing exactly how far it can invest viewers without forcing them to pick favorites, and how tightly it can edit the competition without stressing them out. The stakes are low enough to encourage a gentle remove from the bakers; their determination is sincere, but the stakes are sufficiently small that they — and we — aren't worried.

What made Baking Show different also made it a sensation, both at home and abroad

Look how happy Mary, Sue, and Mel are to see you! Also, there’s Paul Hollywood!

The newest season of The Great British Baking Show, premiering June 16 on PBS, brings back everything that makes the show tick. We know little about the contestants; they develop baking styles as the season goes on, but there are no tragic backstories here. (Hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc deliberately deemphasize this sort of drama, cursing near any crying bakers to prevent the show from using the footage.)

Though Berry and Hollywood are exacting, they're never above jokes at their own expense — Hollywood's hardscrabble vanity, Berry's tippling poshness, their strained fondness for each other. And in their judging, persona rarely trumps practicality: Even the brutal critiques are constructive, and they almost always find something to praise. What we see instead of typical reality fare is a group of earnest amateurs, sincerity, self-deprecation, and the bakes.

It's a winning strategy in the UK, where the Bake Off is a runaway success and a cultural lightning rod. (The good: Brits are baking more. The ill: Viewers on Twitter have attacked Muslim and Sikh contestants, and Hollywood was once accused of favoring a baker because of her looks.) Many former Bake Off bakers have written cookbooks or newspaper columns in the UK. And the ratings are gangbusters; the season premiering this month on PBS aired last year in the UK, and scored nine of the 10 most-watched TV episodes of the year for the BBC.

It took American TV a while to catch up. Though Bake Off first aired on the BBC in 2010, it was four years before PBS caught on. Even then, it seemed PBS wasn't quite sure how to handle it: It aired the fifth BBC series as its season one, and its fourth as season two. But season two garnered an average of 2.1 million viewers, and the third season was PBS's most popular streaming show — good news for a network trying to popularize its streaming service against Netflix, which also has the American seasons. The show's become a social media phenomenon here as well as in the UK, and after three seasons it's so ubiquitous even Saturday Night Live had a go.

But PBS hasn't quite kept pace with the American appetite for the show. The network has yet to announce plans to buy the previous seasons, and this most recent season (seven in the UK, four here) is hitting American airwaves nearly a year after the UK saw it (it premiered in late August 2016). Further complicating the show’s stateside future, this is the last season of the show that will appear on the BBC, which lost the rights to the show. When the next season airs on Channel 4, Perkins, Giedroyc, and Berry will be missing; they opted to stay at the BBC, where disparate shows are being planned for them.

No matter how next season turns out, though, it will be hard to recreate the oddball magic of the Baking Show that audiences have come to know — certainly if American attempts are any indication. CBS tried it in 2013 by bringing Paul Hollywood to The American Baking Competition; ABC tried it in 2015 with Mary Berry judging The Great Holiday Baking Show (renamed in its second season to The Great American Baking Show); neither drew big numbers or critical praise. There's just something about that white marquee on a green British lawn.

This bake-off is treated as intense competition in the UK; it even had its own bookie scandal, when booking agents refused to take bets on the grounds that the show was filmed ahead of airing and the winners were known. (Oddsmakers now take only "illustrative" bets, meaning there’s no money involved; even the betting has become no-stakes.) But the Baking Show is something else here. Those reality TV trappings are familiar, but the lack of internal conflict means it's more of a collective well wish performed by people piping icing with all their might. Everyone's doing their best, and no matter how it turns out, the camera pans appreciatively over it all.

It becomes an almost meditative viewing experience; the outcomes vary, but the rhythms are the same, and the small tricks of editing — knowledgeable asides, shots of the tranquil park and wildlife outside, supportive smiles between bakers — are designed to soothe. There's a sense of acceptance in these nearly impossible challenges. Something will go wrong. Nothing will ever be perfect. That's all right; everyone's fine, and the bake goes on.

Baking Show’s meditative qualities invite viewers to simply enjoy the journey

Nadiya trimming a tart is about as stressful as The Great British Baking Show gets.

In its aesthetic commitment to low stakes and tranquility, the Baking Show is less at home in the competitive-cooking canon than it is part of a particular subset of media that's gleefully abandoned frenetic pacing and high stakes: Slow TV.

The term was originally coined to describe a show following a low-stakes event in real time — less a narrative documentary than a gentle freezing of an experience in time. Norway set the trend with a camera mounted to a train for a picturesque seven-hour train ride; since then, the genre has expanded into such thrilling adventures as boat rides and knitting bees. And the appetite for experiences with no stakes is growing: since Norway's first foray, the UK, the Czech Republic, and Belgium have produced similar offerings.

Despite appearances, a lot is happening under the surface of a Slow TV event. The very concept stands opposed to the idea that the only way to be interesting is to up the stakes; the landscape changes, but the approach never escalates — a Slow TV boat ride is unlikely to end with the boat perched on the edge of treacherous rapids. But the heart of any Slow TV event is the aching, lovely detachment of it all. The stakes are so low that Slow TV events aren't even constructed with the assumption you'll watch it all. Instead, the rhythm of the journey (or the knitting bee) becomes its own background noise, something calming and occasionally meditative. Slow TV is designed not to draw you into its story, but to lull you into not worrying about one.

There's a similar idea behind the rising popularity of ASMR podcasts and videos. ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response, the calming tingle of a particularly soothing activity — say, getting a haircut) has recently become a mainstream coping concept. For some, ASMR stimulation is a way to combat anxiety or insomnia, an all-natural way to lower your blood pressure. Whole YouTube channels are devoted to mostly whispered monologues or quiet soundscapes about something satisfying that has very low stakes: someone writing on thick paper, someone painting your nails, someone carving soap. And though the audio is carefully calibrated to be calming, the most soothing thing about these videos is that nothing will go wrong.

The Baking Show has some lulling cadence of its own; with the limited theme music indicating moments of success, kindness, and suspense, you can track an episode from another room. But if that's not enough, the show has embraced the slow-comfort feedback loop and developed an even gentler version of itself: Masterclass.

Masterclass is a Baking Show offshoot designed for those who find competition too stressful and just want to watch Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood stack cakes while chatting about ingredients. (With the gentle whirr of the mixer and their even-keeled rapport, each season is practically a four-hour ASMR video.) They bake much more efficiently than real time, so it's not officially Slow TV, but the series' meditative calmness goes even beyond a regular Food Channel segment. It's the Baking Show, but without having to worry about anyone, in case all you want is a list of fruits in a tennis cake and Mary Berry's resignation as Paul Hollywood jams his hands into yet another bowl of dough. There's nothing to lose in Masterclass.

Admittedly, Baking Show proper can't promise quite that level of calm. The season that’s premiering this week on PBS — which now feels like the last of a golden age after the departures of Berry, Perkins, and Giedroyc — has the same ambient pressure as the rest. (One contestant admits with marvelous resignation, "I've never been so stressed about dough in my life.") There's a new flourish to the countdown music suggesting this season is more intense, Paul Hollywood snarks a little more than usual, and the voiceovers are studded with dramatic pauses to remind us these bakes are tougher than ever. We know that at least once a season, someone will cry over a bad bake or forget to turn on the oven; we know there will be one or two eliminations that feel unfair.

But this is also a show where many eliminated contestants agree it was their week to go; this is a show that holds a reunion picnic in the season finale. So this season also spends more time than ever on the teasing and sympathetic faces among the bakers, and gives everyone plenty of time to make fun of the show's competitive trappings, its judges, and its own rhythms. Giedroyc and Perkins's pun machine long ago abandoned the fourth wall, but now the show is a known quantity to everyone, and it shows. (Even this is an odd comfort by reality standards; no one has to pretend they've never seen the show they're on.) And the show is careful not to let tension tip over into stress. It's hard to think of an American reality competition that could provide this season's Val, whose idea of trash talk is, "Everybody wants to do their best, and I'm going to do my best as well."

The Baking Show is a series where everyone is striving rather than competing; the difference has been the key to the show's success. Rare is the reality show that's designed to make us admire effort, notice goodwill, and accept things on their own terms. (This is a series in which nearly every winner has come close to being eliminated at least once; nothing is perfect.) Despite that ticking clock, it's a show that wants us to enjoy what's being made, however it comes, and remember the bright green summer just outside. It's the rare competition that understands the comfort of knowing the bake goes on.

The new season of The Great British Baking Show premieres on PBS Friday at 10 pm Eastern.