I first started watching the Great British Bake Off because of my friend Catriona's accent. Catriona is from Northern Ireland by way of Glasgow, so everything she says sounds charming; as it happens, pretty much everything she says is charming, but it would sound that way even if it weren't. When I met up with her and some other American friends in London a few years ago, she suggested that if we really wanted a taste of the local culture we needed to tune into a reality show about the UK's best amateur baker.
"Last week was cake week, and the entire country went mental," she told us. "We were fixated on the screen like" — and here you'll need to imagine an adorable Irish woman leaning forward and making a comically wide-eyed face — "will the chocolate shavings adhere?!"
If you imagine the face and the accent well enough, you'll understand why that pitch was impossible to ignore. In the spirit of experimentation, we parked our jetlagged butts in front of a rerun of Great British Bake Off that very day. (It was season 4, featuring the luminous Ruby Tandoh and Kimberley Wilson with her thousand-watt smile — an excellent introduction, especially if you're on a ladies' vacation and feeling inclined to think warm thoughts about dazzling women.) By the end of the trip, we were feverishly rushing to Marks & Spencer to get a small Victoria sponge before the newest episode came on.
Never has watching people crouch down to peer into ovens felt so fraught.
The basic idea of the show is this: twelve amateur bakers from all around Britain meet once a week in a tent on the grounds of a mansion. In the first season, the tent traveled around Britain, but in subsequent seasons it's stayed put. Within the tent, each weekend, three challenges occur.
The first is a "signature challenge," the contestants' personal variation on a specific kind of baked good — tarts, say, or biscotti — which they've been able to practice at home for the previous week. The next is a blind-judged technical challenge, in which the bakers must navigate an unfamiliar and often devilishly vague recipe. And the third is a "showstopper," which is similar in form to the signature (including the fact that they get to practice), but it has to look and taste especially impressive. Each week, one person is named Star Baker, and one person goes home. At the end of the season, a winner is chosen and awarded the massive prize of ... an engraved cake stand. That's it. There's no money at stake here, and no lifetime supplies of anything — except admiration.
The Great British Bake Off is a bake-off, and it is great, but most of all, it is very, very British. It's British in the sense that, as Catriona explained, it has stolen the UK's collective heart; even my friend Tim, a gruff (if delightful) Marxist from Bristol, softens and grins like a baby when someone mentions the show. It's British in the bawdy-1970s-hospital humor of its hosts, Mel Giedroyc and the flawlessly charming Sue Perkins, and in the perfect poise of judge Mary Berry, whose brightly colored jackets are only a notch less formal than the Queen's.
But it's also very British in its to-a-fault politeness and decorum, leavened with nothing more than a few "soggy bottom" puns. Unlike an American reality competition, Bake Off takes place on the weekends, with contestants going home to their families during the week. Absent are the wrenching theatricals of the coveted phone call home; absent are the entertaining blunders engendered by contestants' exhaustion, loneliness, and cabin fever. The competition is tough, but it is not sadistic. And — perhaps most novel, to a U.S. viewer — the bakers often help, support, and often seem to genuinely like their compatriots. The way they talk about each other rarely rises to the level of mild opprobrium, let alone American-style shit-talking. Nobody gangs up. Nobody forms alliances, or breaks them. Nobody backstabs. Nobody even visibly rolls their eyes when some tall poppy wins Star Baker five fucking times.
This is not to say that Bake Off isn't exciting. It's riveting, actually. You're likely to wind up on the edge of your seat, wondering if those dang chocolate shavings will adhere or not. The question of whether the chocolate shavings are going to adhere becomes crucial; when I've watched Bake Off with friends, we've frequently howled in distress when someone's crème patissiere curdled or their mousse didn't set. Never has watching people crouch down to peer into ovens felt so fraught. It will be tempting to lay into baked goods for your Bake Off watching, because the show will make you fiend desperately for buttercream, but I can't recommend it. There's too much potential to wind up stress-shoveling cake into your mouth, eyes glued to the screen, waiting to see what happens when the springform pan un-springs.
You're likely to wind up on the edge of your seat, wondering if those dang chocolate shavings will adhere or not.
The real brilliance of the show, though, is the way it balances that nail-biting tension with an ability to make you feel that there is good in the world after all. It can be easy to overdose on the pettiness and lack of empathy humans display towards each other. (If you're a big social media user, it's nearly impossible not to.) But Bake Off cuts through that cloying despair like sharp citrus cutting through the sugar in lemon curd.
Outside the tent, the Daily Mail might complain that the season six finalists represent a "Muslim mum," a "gay doctor," and a "New Man," and make nasty jabs about "chocolate mosques." But inside the tent, Muslim mums, gay doctors, and New Men (whatever they are) support, hug, celebrate, joke around with, and root for each other. Though the contestants skew white, like Britain's population, it's a more diverse crowd than you usually see on TV in terms of ethnicity, gender, country of origin, age, and class; in fact, the main common thread, besides baking, seems to be that the contestants are overwhelmingly good-natured, funny, endearing, and well-disposed towards their fellow bakers.
Bake Off is a competition, but it's also a messy ad hoc family, and seeing people react to stress by drawing closer instead of attacking each other is a balm. They love each other, and that's soothing to see, and you love them all too, and that's soothing to feel. While a sticky film of annoyance occasionally adheres to one or two contestants (season five's Jordan is a popular target of ire), for the most part, you celebrate every win and mourn, but totally understand, every loss. Evaluating the three finalists of season six, which wrapped up last month, I realized that no matter the winner, my only possible responses were "fine," "happy," and "ecstatic." (I was, in the end, ecstatic.)
The show balances nail-biting tension with an ability to make you feel that there is good in the world after all.
The judges maintain this heady mixture of kindliness and drama. Mary Berry is your ideal grandma, elegant and gentle, expecting great things but loving you unconditionally if you fail. She wants nothing more than to tell you something is "scrummy," or if it is not she wants only to help you improve. Co-judge Paul Hollywood is more intimidating; his favorite trick is to fix a baker with his icy blue eyes for a silent beat after the bake is presented, as if waiting for an apology. (Even this, by far the cruelest move on the show, is usually a fake-out. Unless the bake is an obvious disaster, the Hollywood terror-gaze is usually a prelude to a grinning I love it.)
Of course, even with all this positivity, the tent is not a utopia. There have been three major scandals in the six seasons so far. In season four, Deborah accidentally stole Howard's custard and put it in her trifle. In season five, currently available on Netflix as "The Great British Baking Show," Diana moved Iain's ice cream out of the freezer and it melted, whereupon a frustrated Iain threw his entire baked Alaska in the trash. And in season two, the finale featured a brief shot of a squirrel with enormous testicles.
But even dramatic moments like Custardgate and Bingate (as fans refer to them, in semi-seriousness) are handled in a polite, respectful, eminently British way. When she realized her custard error, a distressed Deborah ran around fetching things for Howard, trying to make the blunder right. In a later interview about his "custard trauma," Howard said, "Watching it, I just felt so sorry for Deborah all over again. She was mortified." The judges gamely analyzed the custard quality separate from the dessert as a whole; the chyron read "Deborah's trifle with Howard's custard."
Bingate, which was partly an error of decorum, was a bit more far-reaching in its effects; at the end of the episode, an abashed Iain acknowledged that he probably let frustration get the better of him, but afterwards he couldn't quite let go of the assertion that it was mainly Diana's fault. Fans were irate, and tweets got heated enough to melt a baked Alaska. Still, Sue Perkins' analysis on Twitter — "This is a show about CAKES. Please, let's save the ire for the real stuff" — pretty much won the day. Even Iain finally told the Guardian, "In the end, it's only a reality show about baking."
It is that, but it's also much more. It's an oasis of positivity, a triumph of excitement without anxiety, and the home of reality television's premiere small mammal scrotum. And it's a place for all of us — builders and homemakers, students and doctors, teens and retirees, of all genders and races and backgrounds, even New Men — to clasp each other's hands in anticipation, lean in towards the television screen, and ask with one voice, "Will the chocolate shavings adhere?"
Highly Recommended is Eater's periodic column of endorsement for things we and our contributors love, and that we think you might want to love, too. These are opinions; if you disagree with them, that's cool.
Jess Zimmerman is a writer, editor, and smartass who lives with a dog in Brooklyn. She has written for the Guardian, Hazlitt, the Hairpin, the Toast, Atlas Obscura, Aeon, and others, and identifies as Chaotic Good.
Kit Mills is an illustrator, designer, and graveyard enthusiast based in NYC