Imagine a reality-television show that combines talent, gumption, and kindness interspersed with moments of real humanity, packaged neatly into an hour-long episode of television, all set on the grounds of rolling, verdant British estates — it’s for these and other reasons that The Great British Baking Show is one of the best shows on television. Maybe you’ve heard people talking about it, or maybe you’re just looking for something to watch that makes you feel good instead of very, very bad. The Great British Baking Show is the cure. But what is it and why should you watch? We’ve got the answers for you right here.
What’s the deal with this show that people keep talking about?
Simply put, it is the best thing that summer television has to offer. It’s a reality-television show filmed at various large and stately estates around the English countryside. In the U.K., it’s called The Great British Bake-off, which is cute and charming and abbreviates nicely to GBBO. In America, however, it’s called The Great British Baking Show. Twelve home bakers from all over the U.K. are brought together in a tent to competitively bake tarts, pies, bread, and whatever else strikes the judges’ fancy.
The show is filmed over a series of ten weekends, leaving the contestants time to go home to their families and prepare for the next round of challenges — a much more civilized reality-television model than the American version. Each episode is themed around a certain type of baked good and is broken out into three challenges: a signature bake, a technical bake, and a showstopper. At the end of every episode, one person is awarded the honorific of Star Baker and, sadly, one person goes home. When the whole thing is done, the winner gets nothing other than a very fancy cake stand and bragging rights. It is totally worth it.
Tell me more about these challenges you speak of.
The signature bake opens every show. Consider it the easiest challenge, similar to the mini-challenge on RuPaul’s Drag Race. The baked good they’re tasked with baking is something that should already be very familiar to them — a fruit pie, for example — and must be executed in a specific amount of time. The technical challenge is slightly more difficult; each baker must make one of the judge’s recipes using the exact same ingredients and set of instructions. The twist is that some of the instructions are missing crucial elements, leaving the bakers to use their intuition and technical aptitude to complete the challenge. The showstopper is an opportunity for the bakers to go hard in the paint with creativity, technical aptitude, and time management. It is easily the most stressful part of the show.
Are the judges just regular people who like cake?
Well, no. The judges of the show are the improbably named Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, two renowned bakers in their own right. Hollywood is a baker and television personality known for baking and guest-judging on a variety of other reality shows in the U.K. Berry started as the cookery editor for magazines like Housewife and Ideal Cook. She’s also published a lot of cookbooks herself and has never met a shocking-pink blazer she didn’t like.
What about those snazzy hosts?
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc are a British comedy duo who are known for being funny adjacent to food. If Paul Hollywood is the intimidating yet kind lacrosse player with a heart of gold and Berry the occasionally acid-tongued homecoming queen, then Mel and Sue are the theater kids that befriend the new kids on their first day of school. They are everything a reality-television host should be: kind, supportive, and unafraid of a double entendre.
Where do the contestants come from?
They’re all home bakers from far and wide across the U.K., picked because of their baking talent and their ability to whisk cake batter while speaking to the camera. In other words, regular people!
Did America ever try to make its own version of this show?
There’s something ineffably British about the show that hasn’t quite translated in an American interpretation. CBS tried an American version, the awkwardly monikered The American Baking Show, with Jeff Foxworthy as host. It only aired for seven episodes and was basically a replica of the British version with one crucial difference: The winner took home $250,000 and a book deal with Simon & Schuster. Last November, ABC produced a holiday-themed American spinoff that hewed closely to the British version, The Great Holiday Baking Show. While it was thrilling in its own right, it lacked the verve and the gumption that makes the clearly superior British version such a delight to watch.
All this is fine, but why should I care?
Reality television as it exists in America creates villains and heroes in the editing room. It imposes narrative structure on the mundane but does so with a heavy hand. The Great British Baking Show moves at a rapid clip, but the participants aren’t driven by money or an ephemeral notion of fame. No one on the show wins a cash prize; there are no book deals or Food Network shows promised. Everyone who competes does so because they truly love baking. They want to be the best at what they do out of pride, and that’s the most refreshing part of the whole enterprise. Watching an episode is both soothing and compelling, a visual Xanax that serves to calm rather than to rile.
Okay, so where should I watch this thing?
The fifth season is currently the only season you can stream — it’s available on Netflix and is a worthy way to spend ten hours of your time. The sixth and newest season airs on PBS — the third one to have aired on PBS stateside — starting today. You can watch the three seasons available on PBS online if you have Thirteen Passport.