How a friendly show about cakes and cookies became the most optimistic television we’ve got.
(Author’s note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly identified PBS as featuring only the most recent season of The Great British Baking Show. In fact, PBS has aired three seasons, which means the author has some television to watch this week. Thank you to Catherine Schreiner for the correction!)
A few months ago, The Great British Baking Show took the internet – or the American portion of the internet, anyways – by a very fleeting storm. Fans flocked to Amazon Prime to watch a group of amateur British bakers very politely duke it out over breads, cakes, and macaroons. And while the popularity of The Great British Baking Show may have died down somewhat following its Amazon splash, the show’s success did provide it with a foothold on the domestic market. Starting in July, the Public Broadcasting Service progressively streamed episodes from the most recent season in the United Kingdom. It may be a half-a-year behind, but those audience members like myself who fell in love with the show did not let that stop us from enjoying the show (Game of Thrones spoiler-phobes ain’t got nothing on my six-month-old Google blackouts).
As The Great British Baking Show has quickly become one of my favorite television shows of all time, I’ve been meaning to write about its most recent season for ages. The timing couldn’t be better. American audiences were only just treated to the season finale a little over a week ago; meanwhile, British audiences are only a few days away from the premiere of the next season on the BBC. This makes this week as good a time as any to stop and reflect on the success of the show. I don’t consider myself a fan of reality television as a general rule of thumb – episodes of House Hunters naturally notwithstanding – but from my first episode of the show, I’ve been absolutely hooked on the format and contestants of The Great British Baking Show. Detractors may view it as little more than a gentler version of a show like Hell’s Kitchen, but me? I see it as proof positive that there’s a better world out of television out there for the making.
If you’ve never seen an episode of the show – and seriously, you should get right on that as soon as possible – here’s a short rundown of the structure and participants. Each week, the field of contestants are faced with three separate challenges. First is the Signature Challenge, an opportunity for each baker to impress with their own spin on a classic recipe. Second is the Technical Challenge, where contestants are given the same set of instructions they must follow to the (often vaguely worded) letter. Finally, the contestants compete in the Showstopper Challenge, a chance for each baker to go all out with a culinary construction that demonstrates their design and time management skills as much as their baking skills. At the end of each episode, one contestant is awarded the title of Star Baker for the week, while another contestant is sent home.
The primary judges for the show are Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry (honest), well-regarded English bakers who form the gauntlet contestants must run through each week. By the gentle standards of the show, Hollywood probably qualifies as the bad cop of the two, but even his gruff commentary is more centered on the quality of the bake than the personality of the baker. Each judge has a slight preference when it comes to style – Mary seems to pay a bit more attention to the design of a finished bake while Paul is always critical of the potency of a dish’s flavoring – but both judges agree on the quality of a dish more often than not. In fact, The Great British Baking Show does not even capture the judges’ final deliberations on camera. Whatever fights Paul and Mary may have over who wins and who losses each week are kept entirely between the two of them.
While all of that may sound like a pretty generic format for a reality television show, there’s an element of optimism running through the show that causes it to tower above many of its peers (fiction and non-fiction alike). Unlike many American reality television shows – where many contestants are already employed in the industry the show is focused on – The Great British Baking Show never shies away from the amateur status of its contestants. The people who compete on The Great British Baking Show are schoolteachers, construction workers, architects, medical professionals. They are housewives, retirees, students. The only things that these contestants truly have in common are an aptitude for baking and a warm disposition; they are here to make friends and knead flour, and as it turns out, they have plenty of flour. Rather than shy away from their contestants’ lack of professionalism, the Great British Baking Show often leans into it, featuring mistakes and culinary disasters aplenty.
That optimism runs deeper than just the friendliness of the contestants, however. At a time when the United Kingdom seems overrun by people who want to close borders and implement ideological checkpoints, two of the show’s most recent contestants have helped open the hearts and minds of millions. Tamal Ray, an openly gay anesthesiologist and finalist on the last season of The Great British Baking Show, is the son of parents who immigrated from India to the United Kingdom in the 1960s. Nadiya Hussain, the eventual winner, is a Muslim housewife and the daughter of immigrants from Bangladesh. Since competing in the show, Hussain has become the face – albeit a reluctant one – of what it means to be a practicing Muslim in contemporary England. Ray, for his part, has also become a symbol for the LGBT community as a whole. Neither person set out to make a political statement, but their likability and success in England’s most popular television show means they’ve made one nevertheless.
That’s an important distinction to make. The world did not fall in love with Nadiya and Tamal because they were perfect paragons of political correctness; they fell in love with these contestants because they were everything we ourselves would hope to be if we stood in their place. Nadiya and Tamal were self-effacing in victory, magnanimous in defeat, and always the two most charismatic people on the screen. Tamal’s jokes at his own inability to manage the clock helped make our own internal critical voices seem more affable; likewise, Nadiya’s willingness to wear her emotions on her sleeve served as a valuable reminder of our own drive for perfection. As audiences got to know these contestants over the course of a full season, they ceased being emblems of their race, gender, or sexual orientation and started being three-dimensional and likable people. It’s easy to carry fear or anger towards a population of people; it’s a lot harder to maintain that animosity towards someone you’ve gotten to know pretty well.
I can count the number of times I’ve cried during a movie or a television show on one hand, but the season finale for The Great British Bake Off was the closest I’ve been to cracking in years. Here were two people – people whose personal beliefs and sexual orientation put them at the center of our ugliest political debates – who were tearing down walls built upon stereotypes and prejudice while remaining entirely true to themselves. Who were making an unconscious political statement through their own continued success, but who audiences could relate to as individuals. So sure, The Great British Bake Off may just be another bit of reality television, but the people who compete on the show are in many ways showing us the kind of world we could only focus on the things we have in common instead of the things that drive us apart. Call me a sap, but I really do think The Great British Bake Off could save the whole damn world if we let it.
One macaroon at a time.