I have a confession to make. In the midst of COVID19, I’ve managed to watch the entire canon of the Great British Baking Show. Every episode.
This is no small accomplishment, as the show spans ten streamable seasons of ten episodes (except seasons one and two, at 6 and 8 respectively), each a reliable one hour long. This makes for relatively easy math… It’s a total of 94 hours of pure baking excitement.
That’s right. 94 hours seated stationary in front of the telly. Yeesh!
My wobbly rationale for investing 94 hours in baking porn is two-fold. First, as an amateur baker striving to get better, I readily justify this as an ideal opportunity to learn advanced skills and techniques, discover new recipes and simply pick up a few new baking ideas.
Second, we’re in a pandemic. I shouldn’t have to defend it any more than that. Nor does it have to make any more sense than that.
Of course, you could readily argue it’s an indefensible indulgence. I’ve no plans to make a Jubilee cake, fondant fancies, a hand raised pie or most of the other baking forays thrust upon the contestants, and the show isn’t really bogged down with too much in-depth baking instruction. There are the occasional explanations about how a meringue works and discussions about proving times (at least once in each season), but you’re not likely to be transformed 94 hours later into a significantly better baker.
But, you may end up a better human being. (More on that in a moment.)
Still, it is a fantastic indulgence, and worthy of close examination simply because it is reality television unlike anything else. Yes, it has a ridiculously formulaic structure, complete with three bakes (signature, technical and showstopper) in a weekly theme (cakes, patisserie, breads, puddings, etc.), and weekly winner (star baker) and loser (kicked off the show, naturally), complete with the classic tense music and a halting reveal.
But that’s where it departs from other reality shows. The standard reality TV concept thrives in dramatic, over-the-top interpersonal conflict – the toxic, bombastic, nasty, and even sociopathic interactions among the contestants. Each show relies on, and revels in, a significant measure of hostility and confrontation to draw in and engage the viewer.
GBBS has none of this. Instead, every season and every episode is filled with cooperation and conviviality. Not only are there no harsh words exchanged or dirty tricks pulled, the contestants instead encourage and even help fellow bakers with their entries. Perhaps the intercine warfare and psychological antics are just off-camera, but none ever surface on-screen and there’s nothing to suggest any such tensions even exist. Ultimately, the only confrontation contestants face is with their ingredients and recipes. Otherwise, it’s just the joy of baking and the tireless pursuit of more flavor.
And it is there that the true genius of GBBS exists. Within the confines of an entirely banal construct, incredibly nice, likeable, competent people vie to be recognized as the ‘best amateur baker in Britain.’ And for the viewer, each week presents another comfortably familiar three-bake drama wherein ten, then nine, then eight, and ultimately only three wonderfully charming individuals battle with ingredients, recipes, oven temperature and time. But not with each other.
Each hour is a glimpse into the best of humanity. As an engaged viewer, you’ve little choice but to pull for everyone. There may be a favorite or two, but it’s difficult wishing anyone would fail. At least 120 contestants have cycled through the series to date, and I defy you to pick even two and say “I’m glad they lost.” (Ruby, perhaps predictably, but that’s it.) It’s not hyperbole to say, at the denouement of each episode, that it’s a sad and even devastating experience when the unfortunate baker is, inevitably, ‘asked to leave.’
You could say that GBBS is simply excellent casting. It’s a case study in recruiting, the skillful identification of genuinely nice and talented people. Maybe. But whatever the secret sauce is, it’s pretty remarkable.
And that’s why it’s worth closer study. GBBS has figured out how to find a dozen truly capable, pleasant, creative people that get along, create really wonderful products under stress and with the camera constantly trained on them. At the same time, we sit eager and supportive as they complete their bakes, quietly hoping for success and perfection through every obstacle and challenge.
Imagine being able to recruit a team like that, and create a formula like that, and encourage a work environment like that.
Just imagine the success that would cook up.