Why "The Great British Baking Show" is the best kind of reality TV
I know reality TV. I have watched through the best and the worst of it. I watched through competitive reality shows, such as Survivor, The Apprentice, and The Amazing Race. I obsessed over romance themed reality shows like The Flavor of Love, as well as its predecessors I Love New York, Rock of Love, and Daisy of Love. I have ingested hours of Trading Spaces, Fear Factor, America’s Next Top Model, The Real World, Ru Paul’s Drag Race, and Say Yes to the Dress, to name a few. I have even kept up with the Kardashians for a little while there. I have invested in these people and their hopes, dreams, and relationships. For the last 15 or so years, I’ve watched what must be hundreds of episodes of reality TV. About three years ago I moved out of my parents house and into my own apartment. I was unable to afford cable, so I said goodbye to my guilty pleasure of week-by-week episodes of reality television and got myself a Netflix account (okay, I took my boyfriend’s Netflix password), and reentered the world of scripted television.
Reality TV is usually not as fun when if you binge watch it after the season has aired. There is a lot to be said for the wait time between episodes of reality TV when you are following along with it live. The stakes feel a lot higher, and watching the entire series play out after the fact was just not as exciting. I had no interest in tuning into my former favorite shows, anyway. Most have been canceled outright, and others have had a slow and sad fall from grace. I wasn’t compulsively calling in votes for my favorite idols anymore, and I certainly wasn’t about to watch The Real Housewives of New York sans Jill Zarin. I didn’t feel like I was missing anything by not tuning into Teen Mom Season 7. I thought competition television’s moment was over. Then something popped up on my Netflix page that changed things for me. The Great British Baking Show.
I don’t know what compelled me to click the link and start watching, but I am glad I did. Thus began an enchanting journey into humility, triumph, and support within a reality cooking show — a far cry from the tense nature of American favorite cooking competition shows like Master Chef or Chopped. The bakers on the show are not out for blood, waltzing into the tent (yes, all the baking is done in a tent) like Omarosa or Simon Cowell. The Great British Baking Show (or Bake Off, as it is known in the UK) features 12 amateur bakers who compete in baking challenges under the loving scrutiny of judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood. Every week, the contestant who does the poorest is sent home, usually with a barrage of hugs and well wishes, and the one who does the best was crowned “Star Baker.” Being called “Star Baker” is ultimately an acknowledgement of your good work — you are not granted immunity or given any special prizes. In fact, there is no monetary prize awarded for the winner of the Bake Off.
The first time my partner and I sat down to watch the show, the first thing he said was, “Okay, so who is the villain?” Of course, in most reality television, there must be the one outlier who is willing to beg, steal, and cheat to win. The reality show villain usually says things like, “I didn’t come here to make friends,” and is completely willing to throw other contestants under the bus in order to thrive. Almost every competition show has one. We scoped out the contestants, trying to get a grasp on what trope each of them would be — the villain, the crybaby, the favorite. Instead, we saw contestants genuinely building each other up, complimenting one another, and focusing on their own bakes rather than trying to bring each other down. The energy and excitement came from baking a perfect crust or making sure that all of your petit fours had an even bake, not from trying to humiliate each other on national television.
This show is exciting without using the boring, overused device of artificial tension. This show highlights the true nature of healthy competition while it minimizes humiliation. The contestants seem to be brimming with hope and ambition rather than toxicity, and the accents don’t hurt the situation, either. If someone needs an extra egg for a recipe, a fellow contestant is willing to hand one over to help. If something goes awry, say adding salt to a recipe instead of sugar or accidently spilling your last cup of flour, there is no swell of dramatic music into a hard cut to a commercial break. The judges have critical feedback and are honest with the contestants, but are not in the business of shaming anyone. The show is refreshing in that it returns to the truest nature or a competition show: May the best baker win.
Another factor that I think contributes to the shows refreshing vibe is that the viewer is not over-diluted with the contestant’s backstories. The backstory of a contestant has slowly become a driving force in reality competition shows. It is almost rare to see an American reality show contestant who has not overcome an unbelievable hardship. We invest in underdogs, we root for them, and we rejoice when they succeed. However, as time went on, it also became vital for a contestant to have a compelling backstory in order to succeed in the competition and in the hearts of the American public. Bake-Off does not delve into a contestant’s backstory except for the bare minimum of information. Something like “Robert lives with his wife and two children” or “Luis keeps bees” might be said of a contestant, but if someone had suffered a loss, has a history of medical problems, or is involved with an initiative to save the world, you would not be told so on Bake-Off. The drama comes from the three challenges per episode — the signature challenge, the technical challenge, and the showstopper challenge. You will not miss the backstabbing and the tension of traditional reality television when you are immersed in the quaint British world of producing the perfect biscuits and pies. You will be too busy being worried about someone’s swiss roll cracking to even realize that no one has done a confessional slandering the name of the a fellow contestant.
There had been attempts at an Americanized Bake-Off, but none have taken off. It is better off, though, since “Britishness” is a huge contributing factor to the aesthetic and overall success of the show. Bake-Off has been a national sensation in the UK for the past five or so years, and it is about time for it to make it’s way to the States. Season 5 is on Netflix and Season 6 was aired on PBS. Thank you, Great British Baking Show, for challenging the conventions of traditional American reality television and providing us with delicious entertainment.
April Lavalle is a writer and comedian from New York City. She cuts her own bangs, that’s why they look like that. You should probably follow her on Twitter