The Great British Bake Off

I’ve long been fond of Roger Ebert’s assertion that a children’s movie can do just fine without a villain. Here’s the opening paragraph of his review of My Neighbor Totoro:

Here is a children’s film made for the world we should live in, rather than the one we occupy. A film with no villains. No fight scenes. No evil adults. No fighting between the two kids. No scary monsters. No darkness before the dawn. A world that is benign. A world where if you meet a strange towering creature in the forest, you curl up on its tummy and have a nap.

Reality television is reaching this point as well, I think, although, as in children’s movies, I doubt very much that it will ever be the mainstream position. Why should a reality television program require a villain any more than a children’s movie? Isn’t there enough drama that inherent in the program that we shouldn’t need to manufacture villains either through casting or circumstance? What made the first two seasons of Survivor must-see television in the way that its millions of follow-up seasons simply aren’t is that neither one really had a villain. Rudy and Richard and Keith, each of them “crusty but benign,” never really acceded to villain status. Did people squabble and fight? Constantly. Were there heroes? Not particularly, no, and no villains to match them. If Richard was odious to some viewers, it probably had to do with that penchant for nudity and his outspokenness; if Rudy was annoying, it was because he had that “get off my lawn” routine absolutely nailed down. But being unpleasant has never been the same as being a villain, not even on reality television. And there are shows – The Amazing Race comes to mind – which could have bred a villain and, at its best, failed to do so. The season where Rob and Amber of Survivor fame came on and tried to trip up the competition felt more desperate than preceding seasons; no one ever dared to play the game as dirty as they had, and I’m not sure that it was terribly attractive to viewers who had come to enjoy The Amazing Race more as a snapshot of the world, reveling in the stress that comes when neither person speaks any Spanish and can’t give the taxi driver directions at all. Cosplaying Jules Verne, complete with parlor games, is drama enough – why do you need to insert unpleasant people to ruin the fun?

The Great British Bake Off, a program for which I am already in mourning, exists in Anglophile Heaven, in a field in front of a nice big pretty house that we plebeians aren’t allowed inside of, thank you. Sheep frolic and “baa!” and occasionally stare down the camera disdainfully. Bees buzz and flowers grow, and once or twice every season there’s a good hard downpour that plays heck with people’s sugarwork. Iron Chef America is performed in “Kitchen Stadium.” Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen take place on sets with every bell and whistle of modern cooking. GBBO throws a bunch of bourgeois Brits into a tent on someone’s expansive, manicured front lawn, and eschews the pulsing basslines and drumbeats and sound effects for earnest musical jewel tones.

The contestants are recognizable and charming. They are fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, working all manner of different jobs (although many of them work in fields which require the same obsessive attention to detail as baking, which I find endearing), but none of them make their living from a culinary career. They are wrinkled or overweight or have bad teeth or undyed hair. They could, in fact, be us, except for the fact that they are wonderful bakers. The contestants on GBBO remind us that everyone has talents and skills; if there were a Great British Some Other Skills Off, perhaps we would be able to join them on television; it just happens that baking experience is necessary. And it’s a sweet reminder that sometimes, everyone gets so mad they just want to throw their melted Baked Alaska into the trash, everyone makes funny faces when they’re nervous, everyone discovers a sense of humor under pressure, and every now and then, everyone succeeds when they expect to fail.

The contestants on GBBO are picked off, one by one, until the final, when the three remaining contestants compete for one last weekend. Everyone’s sorry to leave, but I’ve never seen anyone get mad about it. No one in this show fetishizes their own competitive spirit; they obviously must have great will and a powerful desire to come out on top, but no one feels the need to harp on it or mention it without a wink. Far more often, people are just proud of achieving goals they set for themselves, or having learned some things they never knew, or experiencing something totally different from what usually goes on at home; it’s touchingly realistic, even though I don’t know that many of us want to admit that we’re willing to accept less than conquest in our lives. And on a show where I’ve heard just about every flavor but “bitter” mentioned, it’s fitting. No one likes a sore loser, and on GBBO, the closest they come to that is pensive.

(If you think you’re going to watch more and different GBBO than you have done, spoilers are ahead. Skip past the italics if you want to avoid them.)

I indulged myself a little bit – having seen Series 5-7 now and not knowing where to go for the rest, I chanced a few spoilers myself – and researched tabloid perspective on GBBO. I was a little shocked: Ruby, from Series 5, is probably the single most divisive contestant in the history of the show. There are people on the Internet who just really don’t like her. I thought about it for a minute, and it made much more sense. No other person on the program for those three seasons was anything like her. She filled the “young woman baker” role that Martha and Flora took in their respective seasons, and where Flora and especially Martha were adorable and sunshiney and much more mature than their ages, finding time to practice innovative bakes, Ruby seemed to be just the opposite. (Kimberley, a little bit over thirty, has much more in common with Martha and Flora, from the smiles to the total competence.) She was frequently dour, constantly doubted the quality of her work, and alternately moped and second-guessed her way into the final. Ruby was the Morrissey of GBBO, and even someone who was just sort of whiny and sad feels like a blotch on the show’s vision. Ruby was not my favorite – her lack of self-confidence certainly came across as angling for compliments more than real feeling – but it just goes to show that there’s a certain homogeneity of temperament on the show, and more than that, an expectation that the women who pop up need to be cute, quirky, or both. Iain, from Series 6, the one who ditched his melted Baked Alaska in a fit of pique, is closer to Ruby than any other single person I can recall in those three seasons: “Bingate” is an iconic moment in the show’s history, curiously enough, but no one seems to really dislike Iain the way they really disliked Ruby. Bingate was hardly Iain’s first emo moment in the tent, either. Anyway, all this to say that Ruby was not a lot of fun to be around, but you have to imagine there’s some anti-feminist vitriol being tossed at her simply because she couldn’t play perky around her baking: how were we supposed to know she was a woman if she couldn’t attain some ridiculous multitasking standard?

The tone for the contestants’ moods, which are meant to sync well enough with our own, is set by the judges and the hosts. Sadly, we’re losing three out of four next season: thus the mourning. Only Paul Hollywood, the Shaman of Schichttorte and Master of Millefeuille, will remain with the program; while I like him, perhaps more than the average GBBO watcher, he is perhaps the least essential. Mel and Sue have bailed,and perhaps most importantly, so has Mary Berry. When Dumbledore dies, Hagrid’s eulogy for him is the best one out of the seventy-five or so J.K. Rowling comes up with for Dumbles in the ensuing six hundred pages: “But…Hogwarts without Dumbledore…” One may well lament, “But…the baking show without Mary…”

Mary is just full to the brim with Britishisms, and although her addiction to litotes is rather less terminal than Paul’s, one hears it in her comments often enough. She is exacting but optimistic in her assessments; flaws don’t go unnoticed, but neither do successes. The bake could be absolute rubbish, but if the piping is good, she’ll say so, and as kindly as she can. That attitude is reflected in Mel and Sue’s reckless cheer; to carry on with our inevitable Potter comparisons, they’re like the metaphysical child of Fred Weasley and Peeves. Not even Ted Allen or Alton Brown, two of my favorite television people, would tell a grieving contestant, “It’s just a cake.” Mel and Sue are willing to tell people it’s just a TV show, it’s just a bake, it’s not worth tears, tomorrow is another day. There’s that realism again; our hosts aren’t trying to fake us into believing that the Tent is some superreal zone. And while there’s a limit to how many puns even I can handle in my hour of television, Mel and Sue delight in absolutely blasting through that limit. There’s a pleasant recursivity in their japes: how absurd to watch a dozen Brits bake! Why not torture the English language (and several others besides) while announcing how much time left before the food has to be presented?

In short, Mary and Mel and Sue are willing to be honest about the GBBO: it means to you just as much as you want it to, and it shouldn’t mean a whit more. It just so happens that everyone has decided that GBBO has a meaning totally out of proportion to its real importance; we’ve all decided that it’s a kinder place, gentler and cheerier and sweeter than the the world outside our couches, a place where a soggy bottom or a too-short prove are the most dire consequences for someone’s actions. Reality, on the Bake Off, goes just as far as we want it to go, but thank heavens it leaves out the cynicism regardless.

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