- Brett Willis
The Great British Baking Show
At this moment, there is no better show currently releasing new episodes than the Great British Baking Show (or “The Bake Off” as our Bri’ish former oppressors call it).
There are a number of Bake Off tropes that I am going to list. I will do this because Bake Off tropes are a primary reason to watch the show. They are consistent, numerous, and delightful. But the true key to the Foppish Baking Show’s success—at least with the pleasure-starved receptors in my brain—is its unwaveringly positive vibe. In the face of everything, these people are less competitors than friends. They offer each other advice mid-competition. They literally step in and help each other decorate. They exhibit genuine compassion and form meaningful friendships.
Meanwhile, in America, our reality shows kick over the rotting log of humanity’s basest desires. Our shows are “The Snake” where the purpose is to guess who will eventually ratfuck whom. Or the hunger games-adjacent “Biggest Loser” where contestants were forced to lose dangerous amounts of weight that basically none of them would keep off. How about The Bachelor and/or Bachelorette? Yes, let’s see which of these absurdly beautiful narcissists can edge out all of the other suitors for the prize of… meaningful love? Not for GBB (as we call it in my house). They’re vying to win a cake prize. They want nice crust on their bread, a good sheen in their mirror glaze. They'd like a handshake.
So, Brett, what consistently makes the Bake Off satisfying to watch?
It has no artifice, no “directorial tricks,” to hoodwink you before it spills the surprise. By the end of each show, you basically know who is going to get star baker, and who is going to be politely, Britishly, asked to depart m’lord. You see what the judges see. You know the rules. Your guess is often as good as the judges'.
The people! They do not shout at each other. There’s no need to bleep every other word they say. None of them, to my knowledge, have been arrested for tax fraud. They are simply people who enjoy the act of baking, and have been chosen to do so in a tent nestled amongst the Snowdrop Gardens of Welford Park.
The hosts! The primary reason I like Noel Fielding is because he, in another televised life, said “fuzzy little man peach.” Matt Lucas, a new-ish addition, is legitimately funny. Consistently, the hosts have a “New Yorker Comic” level of British humor that always comes off well. It’s not necessarily haha funny, but it’s humorous enough to lubricate the show’s passage.
The Hollywood Handshake. You know a bake is good if Paul Hollywood—the evil twin to America’s ever-positive Guy Fieri—reaches out to shake the contestant’s hand. Prue Leith, Paul’s co-judge, has tried to give her phrase, “it’s worth the calories,” the same gravitas, but to no avail. This is less a function of Prue’s taste and more because of the fact that she has been shoehorned, as Mary Berry was once before her, into being the “good guy” judge to Paul’s Simon Cowell.
Rose. This flavor has basically never been successfully deployed. Nobody should use it. But, at some point in each season, a contestant always will. And it’s like watching a lackey in an Indiana Jones film say “there’s nothing in this room!” before stepping on a blow-dart tile.
They love their benignly naughty humor. Neither the hosts, nor the camerapeople, will miss a towering cake construction that looks like a phallus. Any slip of the tongue about “slapping a bun” or “giving that croissant a little prick” will always merit an eyebrow raise. As sexless as they may appear, these Brits sure are cheeky wankers.
The tent is hot! It’s always too fucking hot in the goddamn tent. The gelatin won’t set. The frosting is running. Oh dear me… it’s all gone to mush!
Da dun da dun dun dun dun. You know what I’m talking about.
Alright, so we’ve got the tropes out of the way. Let’s move onto a more serious topic: how does one win the Great British OvenWatch? I’ll tell you.
Build an ornate stand for anything you bake. Making chess biscuits? Hew a chessboard out of walnut and cedar. Making a cake based on your Nan’s carriage house? Create a pedestal out of her favorite polystyrene gnomes. The more elaborate, the better.
Make a black forest gateau or a bakewell tart. I don’t even know what that last sentence means, but the judges will.
Don’t be “style over substance.” One contestant in each season invariably gets shackled with the “style over substance” label. To wit, their meat pies are perfectly filigreed with egg-washed hot-water crust, but their filling lacks the necessary punch.
Then again, if you make stuff that tastes, but doesn’t look, good, then you become the person who makes something that “has a taste that’s all there, but looks a bit of a mess.” After which, you will slump back to your baking station with only a shabby-looking gingerbread ski mountain and a smirk on your face that tells your fellow contestant friends “well here I’ve gone and sodded it again.”
No soggy bottoms. This is another limey bon mot, meaning: cook your pie all the way through.
Time management! The clock is basically a character in GBB. Time announcements are a form of sketch comedy for our trusty court jesters, Noel and Matt.
Never use extracts. Every time someone mentions juniper essence or concentrated watermelon, you will hear Paul Hollywood repeat the ingredient with a question mark in his voice and a “this motherfucker” look on his face.
Stop putting so much goddamn alcohol in your desserts! The joke here is that the flamboyantly garbed Prue Leith enjoys her spirits. Which inevitably leads contestants to gigglingly add “oh I don’t know how much” kirsch to their apfelkuchen. Stop doing it. Prue likes cocktails, not bonbon roofies. Please stop!
Practice religiously. The people who win this show will say crazy things like “well, yesterday, my first four attempts at a wedding cake failed, but my next seven were alright.” You cannot sleepwalk your way into the Bake Off finals.
If you’ve never watched the show, and it sounds intriguing, start at any season. You will meet folks young and old, odd and oddly normal. You will learn who they are and what they’re made of. Yes, you will have a favorite contestant. Yes, they might even win. But, and this is the greatest part of GBB: it truly doesn’t matter who wins. There is no million-dollar prize. There is no guaranteed cookbook deal. They’re simply handed a commemorative plate to the applause of their friends, family, and former bake-off contestants. Like a well-baked ginger snap, it is heartwarming.
At the risk of sounding sappy, GBB is a show that understands what people truly need: community, purpose, and a good sponge to whack in the oven (with fan).
In Short: camaraderie and competition can co-exist!