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America Needs to Stop Remaking Foreign Culinary Competitions

Something always gets lost in transit

Graham Elliot, Cat Cora, and Ayesha Curry
(ABC/Eric McCandless)

Although the network hasn’t had much success launching cooking competition shows over the last decade, ABC is returning to the kitchen once again this summer with Family Food Fight, a new series starring frequent TV judge Graham Elliot, celebrity chef/restaurateur Ayesha Curry, and spicy Instagrammer Cat Cora. The concept is cribbed directly from an Australian show of the same name that has run for two seasons (and might not return for a third). With eight different families squaring off in a multi-tiered home recipe showdown, the format is an awful lot like the Big Family Cooking Showdown, a UK show that had a great first season and awful second season. And what all of these shows have in common is that they seem to draw their inspiration from the Great British Bake Off (or the Great British Baking Show, as it’s called in the USA), a series that completely changed the food TV landscape by proving that you don’t need villainous judges or faux-hawked bad boys to make a compelling cooking competition show.

With very few exceptions — Iron Chef and MasterChef being the big ones — Americanized versions of foreign cooking shows tend to miss the mark. And when it comes to Bake Off knockoffs, a primary problem is that the original series set the bar very high.

The Great British Bake Off is a masterclass in not trying too hard. Each episode of this smash hit features amateur bakers attempting to make both traditional and original pastries inside a tent on a palatial English estate, with two veteran bakers judging each round and a pair of daffy comedians offering running commentary throughout. There’s no grand prize at the end of the show — just a cake stand and some flowers — but the competition is always satisfying because, as a viewer, you feel like you’re witnessing 10 people learn more about themselves and their capabilities by cooking alongside each other in the Big White Tent.

Even if you’re not familiar with the pastries, judges, or contestants, every episode of Bake Off also offers a trip to the English countryside in the company of eccentric, but good-hearted food lovers. The positive vibes are so strong inside the Big White Tent that the series not only weathered a massive, highly publicized host change, but somehow became all the better for it. While the impulse to clone the Bake Off is understandable, the X factor that made that show such a hit — its immeasurable charm — is very hard to replicate, and doubly so if you’re trying to tweak the series to match the tastes of a much bigger audience in a completely different country.

A scene from the most recent season of the Great British Bake Off

When a show borrows the format of another previous hit, it needs to not only nail the mechanics of the genre, but also carve out its own identity, which is something that the various Great British Bake Off clones have not convincingly done yet.

The first attempt to bring the format stateside, CBS’s American Baking Competition, featured a dorky set complete with a “Route 66” sign and “You might be a redneck if…” comedian Jeff Foxworthy yucking it up alongside the Food Network’s Marcella Valladoid and original Bake Off boss Paul Hollywood. The show aired directly against another network food series — Gordon Ramsay’s perennially popular MasterChef — and received the lowest ratings for a Wednesday premiere in CBS history. In a review for TV Line, critic Michael Slezak complained about how there “was not really enough time to focus on getting to know the players,” and how the outcome in the premiere “was as predictable as the use of butter in a pie crust.” At this point, the original Great British Bake Off hadn’t even aired on PBS in America yet, so viewers had no prior context about the format or phenomenon that it was trying to replicate.

The show was swiftly cancelled, and ABC took a crack at a reboot, this time as a yuletide spectacle called The Great Holiday Baking Show starring original judge Mary Berry, pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s Nia Vardalos and Ian Gomez. After this initial run and a similar second season — dubbed, simply, The Great American Baking Show, a name that has stuck with the series ever since — the lineup switched to Iuzzini, Hollywood, Ayesha Curry, and comedian Anthony Adams. But this version of The Great American Baking Show got pulled from the air after two episodes, because of sexual misconduct allegations involving Iuzzini. ABC attempted to give it another go last fall, but this time with the spectacularly random combination of Adams, Hollywood, pastry chef Sherry Yard, and Spice Girl Emma Bunton. ABC’s fourth iteration of the show logged even lower ratings than all three previous versions.

A scene from the Great American Baking Show
ABC/Mark Bourdillion

Despite strong storytelling and mostly-appealing pastry footage, these American remakes never quite found their footing. One problem, aside from the frequent casting changes, is that every season of the ABC show so far has featured American bakers cooking in the English countryside (haven’t producers heard of, I don’t know, Vermont?), with judges from both countries — as if the show wasn’t sure if it should be American or British. American cooking shows have an annoying tendency to reduce the contestants down to stereotypes — The jock! The ditz! The nerd! The sassy grandma! — while British series like the Bake Off leave room for the contestants’ personalities to gradually be revealed over time. Similarly, American food shows tend to amp up the drama with bombastic music and frenetic editing, while their British counterparts take a much more measured approach to building tension.

The Great American Baking Show presents an awkward hybrid of both styles, where the producers never miss an opportunity to highlight moments of cultural clash and/or confusion. (In one episode, Paul Hollywood is even forced to admit that he has no idea what a “snickerdoodle” is — a sad moment indeed.) And following a shitty trope established by Gordon Ramsay and Simon Cowell over the past couple decades, the creators also clearly decided that in the American version the British judges should be portrayed as intimidating hard-asses. While the original show was cozy and self-assured in its pastoral simplicity, the American remake is awkward and desperate for attention. Like many of the best parts of British pop culture (comedy, Britpop, mushy peas, warm beer, etc.) something gets lost when it makes the trip across the pond.

Unfortunately, Family Food Fight falls into many of the same traps as its predecessors. The format is almost exactly like Big Family Cooking Showdown: Eight clans competing against each other in side-by-side kitchens in a series of themed challenges for the title of “no. 1 food family.” But instead of presenting the chefs as charming people that you might want to get to know over the course of the season, the show wastes no time in portraying them as broad stereotypes. “There are two types of people in this world,” says EJ, the patriarch of the Lenzi family from Chicago. “Italian and those that want to be Italian.” Meanwhile, Shayla, the leader of the White family from Texarkana, Arkansas, explains, “The two things we love most are cooking and singing — and the church said amen!” And the Lee family from San Francisco gets introduced via a series of clunky “tiger mom” jokes from mother Melly. “The other families should worry about us because we work like a tiger,” she explains. “Because we have claws.”

The Lee family on Family Food Fight
ABC/Eric McCandless

Ayesha Curry is charming as ever, and Graham Elliot and Cat Cora are clearly seasoned pros when it comes to judging these sorts of productions, but the show also suffers from having very low stakes and food that just doesn’t look that appealing. Despite a strong lead in from Holey Moley, a new miniature golf-themed competition from another famous Curry, the ratings for Family Food Fight were relatively soft, with the show coming in second right behind Dax Shepherd’s new game show Spin the Wheel. At this point, it seems unlikely that Family Food Fight will become a smash hit, but if the show is a dud, hopefully ABC will rethink its culinary competition strategy and try a more home-grown (and less cartoonish) approach next time around.

The good news for anyone who’s looking to marathon watch a satisfying competition show this summer is that you can find all six seasons of the Great British Bake Off on Netflix along with the first season of The Final Table, and there are literally hundreds of Top Chef and Chopped episodes to stream on Hulu and Amazon Video.