“The Great British Bake Off” Is The Best Thing You’re Not Watching On Television

A talent competition-based reality show is my television sweet spot. “Big Brother” bores me. The weepy drama of “The Bachelor” and its various spinoffs have never really held my interest. But pit talented people against each other doing things that feel simultaneously achievable and impossible, like a Sonya Tayeh contemporary dance routine or fashioning a dress out of corn husks, and I’m sold. “The Great British Baking Show”  — currently wrapping up its fifth season in the UK, but airing its fourth season on PBS in the U.S.— is a serious contender for the perfect reality show: It’s a tidy hour of harrowing, emotional television, alternately funny and sad. You wouldn’t think it, but watching a perpetually nervous man named Howard morosely whisking away at cake batter in a tent in the English countryside is surprisingly compelling.

The premise is simple. There are a dozen bakers, picked for their ability to make a croquembouche in under three hours while speaking to a camera. Each episode focuses on a different kind of baked good, from tarts and pies to bread and cookies. Each baker endures three rounds: a technical bake, a signature bake and a showstopper. At the end of each episode, one person goes home while another is crowned Star Baker. At the end of the season, somebody wins, and the whole thing starts again the next season.

Presiding over the frenzy of sugar and flour and butter are judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, improbably named celebrity bakers, likely unknown to American viewers, but famous in their native land.  Hollywood is your gruff, tough-love judge — a Simon Cowell-typ with piercing blue eyes, like an oddly attractive Husky. Berry is the traditionalist, poised and polite to a fault. Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, of the British comedy act Mel and Sue, provide a pleasant balance as the show’s hosts. There is much sexual innuendo. There is cheekiness. In season four’s “Cakes” episode, Mel and Sue spent more time than is necessary speaking in solemn tones to harried bakers about soggy bottoms. For an American viewer used to the cutthroat histrionics of our own culinary competition reality television, it’s a refreshing change.

“The Great British Baking Show”’s popularity makes sense when you consider when it debuted. In 2009, as the UK was emerging from the shadow of a bleak economic crisis, the British shifted towards creature comforts — baking and knitting and crocheting, throwbacks to simpler times when things were much worse. We return to these artisanal crafts — baking, pickling, canning, woodwork — in an attempt to reclaim our industry. You plant a victory garden in times of social and economic unrest to prove to yourself that you can, but also because it’s a rewarding past-time.  As Charlotte Higgins writes in The Guardian, on the resurgence of knitting circles in the wake of economic despair: “The activity was simultaneously a knowing re-creation of something that might never have quite existed, and a sincerely enjoyed, personally enriching, everyday act of creativity.”

On the one hand, your victory garden exists because gardening is pleasurable. Deep down, in your heart, you know that if the apocalypse hits and the Whole Foods goes out of business, you’ll be able to live off the land like your forefathers before you. Doomsday preppers and their insane larders full of canned goods pepper the Southwest and deeper pockets of flyover country, hoarding creamed corn for the end times.

As an American, without a connection to the Britishness of cakes and teatime and Jammie Dodgers, the show is quaint and adorable — an Etsy shop writ large, packaged in a crisp white tent against a verdant green field on a rolling estate somewhere in the country.  The tent is full of gingham and pastel-colored stand mixers, and looks like a nice place to get married. It looks like the English countryside, as imagined by a whimsical 13-year-old who got into Barbara Pym early in life.

We have our cooking shows in America, of course, but they’re not the same. Gordon Ramsay’s flame-emblazoned fantasia, “Master Chef,” is an American reboot of a British classic, pitting regular home cooks against each other in a cutthroat battle that never quite reaches the level of sabotage, but comes very close.

Bravo’s “Top Chef” features seasoned chefs who adhere to a silent sort of chef code. They’re consummate professionals, who know how it gets in a kitchen. Tempers rise, words are exchanged, but the role of a villain is created in the editing room. Any screaming matches are left in for dramatic tension. What sets ‘The Great British Baking Show” apart is its contestants, warm and loving and perpetually fretting. Maybe there are hours of arguments left on the cutting room floor. Maybe the British are infinitely more polite than Americans, internalizing their struggles and their anger, and maintaining their good face for the cameras and their own morale. We’ll never know. All we have is what we see on screen — friendly, genuine and warm contestants who really, truly want everyone else to do well.

The competitors genuinely care for each other. When Deborah, a dentist with thin bangs, accidentally uses council worker Howard’s custard as her own, there are tears and remorse. At the end of the “Pies and Tarts” episode, housewife Christine hugged the departing contestant, Ali, and whispered “If you don’t keep in touch I’ll kill you.” Maybe it’s a testament to the edit, but everyone seems to truly like each other. There’s no culinary chicanery afoot. Everyone wants to win of course, but they’re too polite to show how bad they want it.

There’s nothing else really like it. We had an American version of the show — called “The American Baking Competition” — hosted by Jeff Foxworthy on CBS in the summer of 2013, which visually and narratively, looked the same as its British original, right down to the white tent and green countryside. It debuted to poor ratings and was cancelled after a season.

Maybe we weren’t ready. Maybe it’s because the show lacks the teeth that an American viewership requires for reality television. If no one’s sabotaging your baked Alaska, is your baking show worth watching?  Will you still be emotionally invested if everyone gets along and the only villain is a faulty oven or someone accidentally stealing your custard? We want our reality television to reflect human nature’s dark and uncanny. We want to see lying and manipulation played out in simulated reality, because schadenfreude is the engine that keeps reality television moving forward. When everyone gets along, you argue, it’s not good television, it’s boring. You’d be surprised at how compelling human decency actually is.