Friday, April 14, 2017

You're Doing Everything Wrong: British Baking Show Edition

It's no secret that I watch reality television. I have, over the years, enjoyed The Real Housewives of New Jersey (although I don't want it anymore), Project Runway, Project Runway All-Stars, Face/Off, RuPaul's Drag Race, Food Network Star, Iron Chef, and The Real World (through the New Orleans cast so 1999?). I watch a lot of Food Network shows which are not really reality tv but they all take place in the chef's homes so I feel like they fit into the category. Is it weird that we all know what Giada's kitchen looks like or that we know where Ina keeps the serving platters in her house? Probably but it's best not to think about it too much.

I've never been into shows like Teen Mom or anything involving a Kardashian. Big Brother, The Amazing Race, and Survivor don't appeal to me at all. I absolutely can't get into The Bachelor although I loved Rock of Love, the show that followed Poison front man Bret Michaels on his quest for love while still living his rock and roll lifestyle. There was something so beautiful and completely bananas about that show. Like a lot of things that existed in the early 2000s, Rock of Love came to us at exactly the right time for what it was. We will never, ever recapture that moment...which is absolutely, 100% the right life choice for us all.

Reality television is a lot of things: voyeuristic, funny, sexist, exploitative, sad, heartfelt, creative. Most of the time, it's great escapist fun. Some of the time, it's dangerous and harmful. Reality television creates great villains and even better heroes. We all become #TeamSomeone at some point in our viewing life. People typically refer to reality television as a "guilty pleasure" because they're embarrassed to admit to watching it. I've written about this before; I hate the concept of guilty pleasures. I don't believe we need to apologize for the things we enjoy or hide our interests because someone considers them too lowbrow. The things we enjoy, from music to books to television to movies, make us the unique and interesting people we are.

With the exception of the Jersey housewives and old school Real World, the reality television I tend to watch are competition shows, specifically creative competition shows. As a creative person myself, I feel like these types of shows help inspire my own work. Cooking and baking shows are great for picking up techniques and new ideas for how to make different recipes OR they make you hungry enough to bust out the old baking pans and create something new. While not entirely devoid of the "drama" of placing a variety of personalities in close quarters for weeks at a time, most of the shows I watch lack the table-flipping, hair pulling antics of members of any Real Housewives casts. There's usually a villain but that villain still likes the way you drape a skirt or make a fruit tart.

However, the relative politeness of a Food Network Star contestant is not even close to the actual politeness of everyone involved in The Great British Baking Show (only called this in the US because Pillsbury owns the trademark on "Bake Off" here - fascinating). I'm late to the GBBO (as the cool kids call it, I'm sure) game but I'm not disappointed I joined in. The show began in 2010 and has been credited with a resurgence in baking, particularly traditional baking, across the UK. PBS broadcasts the show in the US and the last three seasons are currently available on Netflix. I just started season three last night. If you've never watched the show here's the way it works: 12 (although this has varied over the seasons) home bakers compete in a 10-week baking challenge. Each weekend, the group goes through three challenges: Signature (their "best of"), Technical, and Showstopper. The technical challenge is always wild; judges (Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood through the season I'm watching) provide a recipe to showcase technical skills. The recipe is often missing information like baking temperature or time. The bakers have to use what they know to figure it out. Additionally, many of the technical challenges are items no one has ever heard of or they've heard of but never seen. This challenge is my favorite.

This is my favorite cake of the 2 seasons I've watched.
The constant, and what I love most about this show, is how nice everyone is. From the judges to the presenters to the contestants, everyone is absolutely lovely. The contestants don't try to sabotage one another (although there was controversy over the Baked Alaska Showstopper challenge in the first season I watched) and they help each other out when they can. They seem supportive of one another in a highly stressful environment. The presenters, Mel and Sue (in the seasons I'm watching), are hilarious and provide the right amount of sass and encouragement to contestants. They're like a funnier, bawdier Tim Gunns. Even the judges, Paul Hollywood (of icy blue eyes and particular taste in everything), and Mary Berry (just freaking delightful), are polite...even when they're providing a less than positive critique. Mary Berry (I have to say her whole name all the time) is the kind of person that you don't want to disappoint and it's exciting to see the reaction of a baker when she praises them. They're all a little in love with/afraid of Paul so that's fun to watch too. One of my favorite Mary Berry compliments was to Ruby (I think): "That's bit of alright." I want to say that all the time in a British accent when someone does well. It sounds so good.

The politeness is just one of the things that sets GBBO apart from the other reality shows out there. The other two elements of this show that astound me are that bakers go home during the week and they get to practice. Unlike pretty much every reality competition series I've ever watched, the bakers get to go home each week. This makes a huge difference in their demeanor and their behavior. While they may be in a foreign environment to bake, they're not completely cut off from their support networks. It makes a huge difference in the way each person handles stress; they stress about the challenge not missing work or being away from loved ones. It creates, at least as I view it, a level of focus on the challenges that I don't think I've ever seen on other reality competition shows. What's also interesting is how they balance home responsibilities and being in the competition. They go about their normal lives between weekend challenges so they go to work, take their exams (there's always a young baker still in school), and care for their children or grandchildren. They have time to relax between being in the stress of the tent (the "kitchen" is a tent in the countryside complete with cut away shots of lambs and's enchanting).

They also get to practice. According to several articles I read about the show, bakers are given information in advance for the Signature and Showstopper Challenges. This allows them time to practice in between weeks. Practice is important, especially when you think about what they have to create for the Showstopper Challenge. Getting ingredients right, construction techniques down, and flavor profiles in line makes all of the difference. One of my pet peeves with most competition shows I watch is that it seems like none of the contestants watch previous seasons before they show up for theirs (I know this is untrue but come on). Contestants always seem completely unprepared for what's about to happen to them; that's not the case on GBBO. While there are surprises and mishaps, the bakers always seem to know what they're up against even when they have literally never heard of the recipe they're asked to make for a technical challenge. I truly believe it's the ability to practice that helps with this. They're comfortable with what they're doing and they make beautiful and delicious baked goods.

Did I forget to mention there's no prize? There is a prize, a beautiful cake stand presented by Mary Berry on the finale episode, but there's no monetary prize for winning the show. Bakers spend more money to be in the show than is probably worth it since they have to practice and send samples to producers in advance. Several of the show's winners and finalists have gone on to great success in the baking world, writing cookbooks, opening bakeries, and even doing spinoff shows so they obviously benefit from being on the show. However, I've never gotten the sense that any of them are on the show for this reason. They're on the show to do something they love: bake. I can completely understand.

So while I believe we are doing everything wrong when it comes to reality competition shows, I would not change any of the other shows for the world because it would take a bit of the specialness away from The Great British Baking Show.

As I dive into making a coconut cake this weekend, I'll keep Mary Berry in mind, "That's a bit of alright."

Frances & the finale Showstopper
GBBO cast 
Mary Berry

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