I am new to the The Great British Baking Show (which goes by the title The Great British Bake-Off in Britain) in part because I have little interest in reality competitions, no interest in baking, and because the series is not exactly easy to find here in the States. It’s wrapped six seasons in Britain, but the sixth season is being re-aired as the third series here in America on PBS, which is a network that’s not kind to cord-cutters. That is to say, you have to work to find it, but it’s an effort worth making.
Why? Because unlike American reality competitions, the cast isn’t selected based on personality profiles. It’s not a reality competition manipulated to create ratings, disputes between contestants, or artificial drama that arises out of sticking 12 people in the same house together for 3 months and preventing them from communicating with the outside world. That sort of atmosphere fosters crazy. The Great British Baking Show is not interested in crazy.
The Great British Baking Show, in fact, may be the only reality competition that fits within one of my favorite categories of television: Good people trying to do good things. Each week, a lovely, diverse group of amateur bakers are brought together to bake, and for the most part, they are the kind of people you might think to be very good bakers. They are sweet, lovely people without an ounce of pretension who bake, not as a career, but as a hobby, or to make others happy. They’ve done it long enough and frequently enough that they’ve gotten very good at it. They’ve entered the The Great British Baking Show not for money or fleeting reality-show fame, but for the same reasons one might enter a pie contest at the state fair: To have their work eaten and appreciated.
Each episode is broken down into three challenges, filmed over the course of two days: A Signature Challenge, in which they bake a favorite dish; a Technical Challenge, in which they are given ingredients and a limited set of instructions; and a Showstopper Challenge, in which they make something extravagant.
To be honest, I don’t much care about the baking itself. I do most of the cooking in my home while my wife does most of the baking, and while she can relate to many of the experiences of the bakers in the show, mine do not extend to theirs. Mostly, I care about the goodness of the contestants.
The judges themselves — Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood — have a sort of stuffy, British air about them, as though pulled out of an episode of Downton Abbey and given modern clothes. They give off the sense of being very harsh critics — and they can be — but they are also liberal with the compliments, and even Hollywood — a sort of baking Simon Cowell — seems to find pleasure in making others happy.
That’s really where The Great British Baking Show is at its best: It’s more than the food that is sweet. It’s the people, who are thoughtful and supportive. It’s also the presenters, one of whom — Sue Perkins — didn’t try to wheedle tears out of a contestant in the season opener when that contestant’s baking concoction fell apart. She sought to console her. “It doesn’t mean you’ll be eliminated,” she said, putting an arm around the devastated contestant’s shoulder.
It was so lovely, and if you spend as much time watching television and movies or reading Internet headlines as some of us do, it’s often easy to forget that lovely people still exist in the world. It’s during these chaotic times that they are the people I most want to spend time with, even if I have no idea what a Black Forest Gateau or a Madeira Cake is.
The Great British Baking Show airs Friday nights on PBS.