Twelve people in the middle of an English field, just… baking. As far as television concepts go, it’s a low-key one; so why is The Great British Baking Show (known as The Great British Bake Off across the water) so hugely successful? It certainly has none of the flashy visuals, hyped-up feuds or dramatic drum-rolls of its U.S. cooking contests counterparts. And it’s because of this — not despite it — that it’s totally, utterly addictive.
For the uninitiated, this 10-week show sees 12 amateur bakers demonstrate their skills in a series of weekly challenges designed to test their nerve and talents, from cakes and pastries to (whisper it) “advanced bread.” Eclairs, ‘saucy puddings,’ ciabatta loaves, florentine biscuits: each week, their efforts are evaluated (ie. eaten) by UK TV baking legends Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, who decide who stays in “The Tent” and who goes.
So far, so Top Chef — so to fully understand GBBS’ appeal, let’s back up a little and return to the land of its birth. In Britain, this show is nothing less than cult-like in the devotion it inspires in every man, woman and child with access to a television, known in hushed, reverent tones simply as “Bake Off.” (Or #GBBO, if you’re one of the thousands who live-tweet every episode or re-live it on Tumblr, with the kind of GIF-heavy enthusiasm normally reserved for Game of Thrones.)
The reason then, for this now-global affection for a show that’s basically about cakes? The word that best sums up GBBS is “comfort”: comfort baking, comfortingly kind judging, non-confrontational contestants and wry, cozy humor. Let’s be honest: it’s also a kind of parody of Britishness. Set in the rolling grounds of a historic country mansion where little lambs can (seriously) be seen frolicking nearby, the set is stuffed with pastel-hued KitchenAids and Union Jack bunting flags. (Perhaps this is why CBS’ much-derided remake The American Baking Competition was canceled after just one season: just not enough bunting?)
More importantly: with all of the posturing, verging-on-sociopathic bluster and cymbal-crashes of your average Food Network Hunger Games stripped away, it’s the kind of foodie tournament you can actually imagine yourself starring in. At its heart are a group of reassuringly normal humans who just really love to bake: from London builder Richard who bakes for his daughters and softly-spoken Indian-born fashion designer Chetna to super-geeky sweets-splicer Jordan and perfectionist Luis, who never resists an opportunity to incorporate his Spanish heritage into his masterful creations.
There’s also the youngest-ever contestant to feature in the show’s four-year history: preternaturally composed 17-year-old Martha, who casually drops in references to doing her exams in the same week as filming the show. These are passionate amateurs, who don’t talk about their “ruthless drive” or how they’re “not here to make friends.” In fact, from the way you can see them chatting as they bake, they clearly are all friends.
If the contestants are all unnervingly pleasant to each other, the judges are downright nurturing. Anyone hoping for Chopped-style barbs and cutting takedowns from Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood will be disappointed — these iconic chefs not only deliver constructive criticism of the gentlest kind, but they visit the contestants before they start baking to hear their plans, and even offer hints. (“You’re going to use three tablespoons of butter?” Paul tells one, his eyes screaming.)
Mr. Hollywood provides the relative glamour but really, this is Mary Berry’s show. Her name may not mean much to Americans, but this 79-year-old master baker has been an iconic presence in British food for decades, so when a contestant wipes away tears of joy after a positive evaluation with the words: “It doesn’t get much better than having your cake praised by Mary Berry,” believe her. But in case it’s all getting a bit too sickly-sweet, hosting duo Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins (another longtime fixture on British TV) provide the irreverence. With their frankly surreal intros and predilection for lapsing into bizarre accents, they might initially confuse or even irritate you but trust me: all this niceness needs a bit of pricking.
This isn’t to say that The Great British Baking Show is without drama; it’s just not the kind you’re used to seeing on a televised contest. Anyone watching along on PBS will remember the infamous “Baked Alaska incident,” in which bearded hipster Iain saw his ice-cream (inadvertently?) sabotaged by co-contestants after a (mistaken?) removal from the communal freezer (click here for PBS’ recap.) It’s a testament to how low-key GBBS truly is when one man exiting a tent in mild-to-medium frustration is a water-cooler moment, but also a reminder of the ridiculous levels to which the stakes are unnaturally raised in virtually every other cooking show like this. For anyone who’s baked a cake in their life, just the sight of these committed amateurs nervously watching their cakes rise (or not) through the oven door is tension enough.
Ultimately, it’s the way The Great British Baking Show appeals to the amateur baker in us all — that’s why it’s so involving. The participants are given the week before the show taping to refine their personal recipes, in the same way that most of us lean on our own treasured dishes. The weekly ‘Technical Challenge’ asks contestants to follow a recipe that’s purposefully missing a crucial element like timing or consistencies — and who hasn’t similarly had to use previous experience, intuition or pure guesswork in the face of a confounding set of baking instructions? The group setting also emphasizes the total camaraderie of baking: unless you’re very hungry (or anti-social), you don’t whip up an entire cake or a tray of brownies for just yourself, the express purpose is to feed the multitude. In the endless chit chat between judges, contestant and the hosts and the climactic tastings, The Great British Baking Show captures the essentially social nature of baking.
All in all, the whole thing is a reminder that lack of training or expensive gadgetry really is no obstacle to becoming a baker — and loving it. Isn’t that sort of… sweet?