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Admittedly, the era of binge-watching comes with a lot of downsides. But one upside is that, thanks to the global nature of streaming services, hidden gems rarely stay hidden.
For example, when I told friends I was planning to review The Great British Baking Show, I expected to get some blank stares. Instead, many people responded with squeals of, “Oh I love that show!” and “Isn’t Mary Berry wonderful?” and “Wasn’t Martha from the first season so adorable?” (Yes, she was.) This was how I discovered how late a comer I was to the baking competition known in its native U.K. as The Great British Bake Off.
Like many other reality TV series, the premise of this cooking show is simple. Each week a group of amateurs pit their baking skills against one another in increasingly difficult tasks, after which one person is voted out until the last contestant standing is crowned winner. From Survivor to Top Chef, it’s the same model we’ve seen from the genre for years. Except that with The Great British Baking Show, something is missing—namely, backbiting and rivalry.
From the moment it first aired on the BBC in 2010, the show has been an anomaly. First, there are the judges. Had this been an American network production, no doubt contestants would have faced some gorgeous celebrity foodie in the mold of Padma Lakshmi or Giada De Laurentiis. Instead, Love Productions recruited Mary Berry, a cookbook author who was in her 70s when the show premiered. They paired her with then-40-something chef Paul Hollywood, and the cheeky chemistry between the two—where the gruff Hollywood pays subtle deference to Berry as both a lady and his elder—is unlike anything else on television. The pun-loving middle-aged comediennes who act as hosts are similarly atypical in their relatable appearances and dress sizes.
Second, there are the contestants. Rather than undermining and plotting against each other, they cheer one another on while focusing on producing their personal bests in shortbreads and choux pastry. Not to say there’s no drama—as when one contestant loses his cool and dumps an underdone dessert in the trash rather than present it for judging—but better instincts quickly prevail (he later sheepishly apologizes and wishes the others well in going forward).
The most surprising thing about The Great British Baking Show, however, has to be how it grew to be a ratings juggernaut that swept stateside to conquer American audiences as well. Maybe it grew so popular because it illustrates the common culture we all share at a time when we feel so politically divided from our neighbors. From an unassuming start on a lesser BBC channel, it became the most-watched show in Britain in 2016. U.K. supermarkets and department stores report that fans are driving the rising sales of baking ingredients and accessories. Naturally, American audiences have taken notice, with steady growth on PBS and word of mouth about the show’s availability on Netflix.
Along with the increasingly rare spectacle of actual kindness between people of different backgrounds, the show offers a smorgasbord of humble delights to behold. From lambs frolicking over rolling green hills during the cutaways to the contestants’ fluffy meringues and crusty brown bread loaves, it all serves a quiet reminder of the common grace of good food and our creative capacity.
ABC has tried and failed for three seasons to launch a version of the show that could match the success of its British counterpart. Rumors are now flying that the network is done trying to reinvent the macaron and will simply reunite Berry and Hollywood for American audiences. Let’s hope that’s true, because when the British show’s creators moved the series to another U.K. network last season, Berry and the original hosts left, and a far less likable team replaced them.
In the meantime, we can all enjoy the comfort food that is the original series on Netflix.