In my head, I can’t stop comparing Paul Hollywood to Simon Cowell. It started simple, with thoughts like “Paul Hollywood is Simon Cowell if he wasn’t a prick.” But I knew that was insufficient; Cowell being a prick is more than just a personality quirk, and Hollywood being kinder even in his moments of sharp-edged critique is more than just a choice. It stems from what they do. Cowell’s aim in life is to make money from the artistic ability of others. He happens to be very good at it, and hence his worldview is one where artists or people trying to be artists are commodities. Hollywood, on the other hand, started as a baker, worked as a baker for many years, and despite whatever swagger or arrogance he carries with him, there’s a love of it instilled at the fundamental level. He appreciates craft more than someone like Cowell would, since Cowell never practiced craft in a serious way and only sees music as a means to a financial end. When Hollywood sees amateurs who are in love with baking, there’s a flicker of sympathy even for the desperate cases, while Cowell would only see a hopeless aspiring musician as a failed commodity—someone who is quite literally worthless to him—and hence someone who can be be dismissed or even mocked.
This, I think, gets to the heart of why I love The Great British Bake Off (known on American Netflix as The Great British Baking Show). Unlike most reality competitions involving amateur passions, there is an understanding here of the risk that these normal people take on when they join the show, and the incredible vulnerability of their big moment. Every person who signs on for a show like this understands that he or she could be humiliated before a massive audience—the most public any of these private people will ever be, by a massive order of magnitude—and those with a sense of imagination also likely understand that, should it go wrong, it could permanently spoil one of the things they love the most in the world. There’s really nothing that can be done to mitigate that risk and vulnerability, which makes it surprising that so many shows adopt the Cowell model and go the next step in treating those who fail as objects of ridicule.
GBBO does not do this. Even the hardest personalities, like Hollywood, strive to soften the blow, and while that may seem like the bare minimum to meet a standard of basic human decency, it’s actually abnormal in the world of competitive television and a big reason for the show’s runaway success. Rather than coming off as soft, the general atmosphere of kindness actually heightens the intensity, because it reveals the humanity in every baker and makes you care that much more. This show’s creators, its judges, and its hosts understand that the spectacle of a human loving something very much and risking disaster to reach a goal is about the most dramatic thing you can imagine, and the way to squeeze real emotion from this situation is not by emphasizing the risks or spotlighting a cruel critic or running weepy mini-bios; you heighten the drama by heightening the humanity.
How simple is that? How elegant?
I’m very late to this show, having just started bingeing it over the month of December, and other people like Paste’s Jim Vorel have written beautifully about many aspects of its appeal, including this one. I risk being slightly redundant here, but like many first-time viewers, I can’t help but be struck by elements that people have been proclaiming for years, and to marvel at them the way others were marveling a decade ago. This is a show that wrings a bounty of pathos from the smallest moments. In the first season I watched, a baker named Iain became so frustrated with an ice cream experiment gone awry that when he beheld the ugly finished product, he said, “I’ve got a great serving idea,” and dumped it in the trash. Compared to the tears and meltdowns of other shows, this miniature meltdown seems like minor fodder, but in the context of this show, it was staggering. In that single act, you could see so much; the insecurity, the deep desire to perform well and feel validated, and the tragic inability to control his impulses in moments of frustration. You desperately wanted the judges to give him a break for this breach of etiquette, and at the same time you knew they couldn’t and in fact shouldn’t; it’s the kind of thing that’s so relatable, but that, as an adult with responsibilities, you just can’t do.
The critiques work the same way. Where judges in meaner shows would call something “awful” or “terrible,” Hollywood gets incredible mileage out of a simple phrase like “it’s a shame,” and Mary Berry (who has since left the show) has the demeanor of someone from whom anything less than grandmotherly praise feels like the sharp edge of a knife. To go further, to be more explicit in that spoon-feeding way we see in other shows, would be overkill; they know that the small moments are, in fact, emotional thunderstorms, and when disaster strikes, they let the distraught washouts keep their dignity.
By doing this, it reminds the viewer of the beauty of competition. Too often, the word “competitive” carries a negative connotation, implying cutthroat ambition and a constant unfulfilled desire to prove one’s self. But in fact the nature of human beings, or at least a good swath of them, is that we like to test ourselves in our endeavors, and often the best way to test yourself is against the skills of other people. It’s also the best way to perform; to show the world a skill you’ve mastered. Take a builder in Manchester who happens to love baking as a hobby, and happens to be quite good at it, and it’s only natural that he’ll wonder how good he really is. This impulse, and the pleasure the rest of us get at watching these competitions, is why this genre of television is so successful. But too often, the competitive drive is perverted by negativity, most often instigated by the hosts and producers angling for the conflict they believe viewers crave. What makes GBBO so special is that it preserves the compelling nature of people competing against one another under extreme pressure, but by eschewing cruelty for its own sake it elevates the art of competition itself. To win is beautiful, but to lose can be beautiful too, and by resisting the treacly allure of melodrama, it respects its viewers more than any similar show on television.
The Great British Baking Show is currently streaming on Netflix and PBS Passport.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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