There’s been no shortage of copy written, here at Paste, and in every other corner of the entertainment web, on the disarming pleasantness of The Great British Baking Show. When episodes of the beloved U.K. series first started being made available stateside a few years ago, I was incredulous, but quickly converted—the merits of Baking Show/Bake Off speak for themselves and are incredibly easy to grasp. Its casual expectation of warmth, friendliness, generosity and affection among competitors makes it stand out instantly from every other cooking competition that has ever aired on American TV—where wannabe celebrity chefs pose, talk a big game, and indulge in reality TV cliches along the lines of “I didn’t come here to make friends.”
The contestants on The Great British Baking Show, on the other hand? I’ll be damned if it doesn’t seem like half of their motivation in any given season is to surround themselves with other lovely people who share the same passion for baking and all the glowing joys baking symbolizes: love, comfort, trust and hope for the future. And this is more true than ever in the now-airing Series 11 of Bake Off (“Collection 8” on Netflix), in which COVID-19 precautions required the contestants to spend more time together in a quarantine pod than ever before. Whereas the show is typically conducted as a series of weekend shoots, the new Bake Off season sees all the contestants instead lodging in a hotel together for the duration, with friendships and fondness growing that much closer as a result.
And frankly, it’s exactly what I’ve needed during the tumultuous run-up to the Nov. 3 Presidential election in the U.S., and the fresh uncertainty of what is happening in a country where the defeated President is currently refusing to admit that he lost a democratic election. There are few things that can slow my heartbeat and lower my blood pressure while living in the U.S. right now—with new cases of a deadly pandemic also setting daily records as I type this—but hitting “play” on a new episode of Bake Off every Friday somehow manages to do so, and for that I am truly grateful. Watching this show is like taking a very brief vacation to a place untouched by the kind of reckless hatred that surrounds us on all sides in 2020.
The show achieves that calming quality in a few dependable ways. One of them is its random joys and indefatigable sense of absurdly optimistic humor, perhaps most perfectly encapsulated by whatever bizarre piece of clothing host Noel Fielding happens to be wearing on any given week. This past Friday, it was a flowing top that seemed determined to split the difference between “shirt” and “dress,” embossed with what appeared to be the scion of some forgotten Robert Crumb outsider comic strip of the 1960s. It’s impossible to imagine the origin point of such a garment.
The series likewise generates almost instantaneous empathy for its contestants—you see them assist and protect each other, and you want to return the favor. That includes arguing on their behalf with the TV screen, as in Friday’s “ice cream cake” challenge that unrealistically saw the group expected to present flawless ice cream layers in a tent with a temperature soaring above 95 degrees. How could you not want to spring to poor Lottie’s defense, being asked to bake the impossible?
Not that you could ever imagine any of the contestants complaining or raising a stink, even if a challenge was patently unfair—they’d simply shrug and move on to the next with good humor. These people have been raised with an expectation of civility and decency that looks like some artifact of a lost era to U.S. viewers, currently trudging through a society more polarized than any that has ever existed before. The sense of politeness is pronounced to such a degree that not only do they not criticize or undermine each other, but you can’t even realistically imagine them doing so, on screen or off. It’s impossible to imagine these humble bakers as supporters of insane conspiracy theories or racially charged calls for violence or disenfranchisement. Even though they hail from a country with its own simmering cultural tensions and a Trump-like, wannabe autocrat leader in the form of Boris Johnson, their souls don’t seem infected by that vitriol. It’s like they’re protected by an impenetrable shield of flour, yeast, sugar and butter.
It’s the indefatigable sense of wholesomeness that always keeps me coming back to Bake Off, season after season. Through thick and thin, and the departure of cast members, hosts and judges, the show always manages to remain exactly as charming; exactly as welcoming; exactly as soothing. Its spirit remains undiminished. So if you’re like me, and what you need most in this moment is a safe harbor against the madness outside your door, know that The Great British Baking Show will be there, waiting for you with open arms.
The Great British Baking Show is available to stream on Netflix.
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