tv review

Thank Goodness, The Great British Baking Show Is Back

Photo: PBS/Love Productions

The Great British Baking Show — known as The Great British Bake-off in its native land — kicks off its fifth season this Friday on PBS with a series of episodes that are, technically, six years old. While this marks the first time these ten episodes have aired in the U.S., they first appeared on the BBC all the way back in 2012. If you’ve never seen them, that won’t matter, because baking rum babas and tarte tatin is timeless. If you have, you may welcome the chance to revisit them over a series of Friday summer nights and pretend it’s 2012 again. For an hour every week, President Barack Obama is on the verge of being reelected to a second term, the Brexit vote is four years away, Mary Berry is still a judge on this show, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins still serve as our hosts, and we can all act like we have no idea which amateur baker — John? Danny? Brendan? Sarah-Jane? — will triumph.

In my review of PBS’s fourth season of The Great British Baking Show, which, across the pond, was broadcast as the seventh, I noted that there’s something especially restorative about watching this series. That feels even more true now than it was then. This list of the ten reasons why I love season five of The Great British Baking Show (a.k.a. season three of The Great British Bake-off) explains why.

All the Niceness

Even when the competition is at its most intense, everyone on this show is perfectly polite and pleasant. True, sometimes Paul Hollywood, with his blue eyes so blistering they could blowtorch a crème brûlée, can be a bit harsh. But generally, the bakers are kind and supportive toward one another and so respectful of Berry and Hollywood’s decision-making that it borders on the comical.

“I think it was the right decision,” says one contestant after she gets eliminated. When Perkins expresses sorrow that another booted baker has to go, the departing amateur chef says, “Oh no, I’m relieved,” as if she’s doing everyone a favor by getting kicked off. Later in the competition, when two sponge-pudding cakes fall on the floor and must be presented in largely destroyed form, the judges are so understanding that the baker who made the error praises them. “I can’t say anything more than how decent they were about it,” she says to the camera. “They were both very, very decent.”

Very, very decent: That’s the best way to describe The Great British Baking Show.

All the Britishisms

The competitors, judges, and hosts are constantly saying things that are super-British and charming. Things like: “Mary Berry said it was scrummy, which is really amazing. Properly amazing.” And: “Oh, Brendan, you are a clever sausage.” And: “Oh, my giddy aunt,” which, in case you didn’t know, is an actual saying. Even when they’re pissed off and disappointed, they express those feelings as if they’re reading a classic work of children’s literature. “I’m really, really cross with myself,” Sarah-Jane says after a particularly frustrating round.

By the way, Sarah-Jane is a stay-at-home mum and the wife of a vicar. A vicar!

The Pastoral Setting

Per tradition, all of the baking is done beneath a sizable tent that has been set up at Downton Abbey. Okay, it’s not actually Downton Abbey — the setting is on the grounds of Harptree Court — but I like pretending that it’s Downton Abbey because it means that Mrs. Patmore might burst in and start bossing around all the bakers.

There are also lovely fields all around the property, which means the cameras occasionally cut away from the cooking action to capture images of sheep, ducks, and bunny rabbits. It’s all very … gentle.

The Slide & Hide Ovens

If you’ve watched The Great British Baking Show, then surely you’ve noticed that the oven doors open, then slide into a little oven door hidey-hole that makes it easier for the bakers to access what’s on the racks. While I am aware that one of these ingenious doors actually broke clean off once, I am still obsessed with watching them disappear. So efficient!

The Helpful Hosts

Mel and Sue show up each week to make jokes and, of course, to kick off every technical challenge and showcase with the countdown: “On your mark, get set, bake!” But when the bakers are having problems, they also function as ego boosters and life coaches. In one of the final rounds, a baker completely screws up and drops a cake on the floor. “You can make a new one, eh?” Perkins says. “I think I can,” he responds. “Of course you can!” Perkins says. No chef gets left behind or left un-bucked-up on The Great British Baking Show!

The Judges’ Criticisms

After a few episodes, you can pretty much guess what Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood will say or do while assessing a cake or pastry. They’ll turn it over, tap the underside, and either say it’s “a good, solid bake” or suffering from a “soggy bottom.” Hollywood will play bad cop and flat-out say he doesn’t like something. And then good cop Berry will soften it with a compliment about how the flavors are still “lovely.” The consistency in all this is very soothing.

The Criticisms of America

The only time your blood pressure will go up while watching The Great British Baking Show — and it will only go up the teensy-tiniest amount — is during the fifth episode, when the bakers have to make American pies and some have the audacity to say that our desserts are too sweet.

“Most American pies I’ve had,” says Hollywood, his eyes looking particularly icy, “I wouldn’t go back for another.” Dude, in this very same episode, you challenged the bakers to make a hand-raised pie, based on your own recipe, that contained chicken, bacon, apricots, and jelly. That’s like instructing people to make the trifle Rachel accidentally made on Friends, except on purpose. Criticize America for our systemic racism or our obsession with capitalism, but don’t tell me we can’t make a damn good cherry pie!

The Skill Level of the Bakers

All 12 of the competitors are technically amateurs. But they are still very good at what they do and well-versed on a lot of cooking techniques. For example, a chef described as a “bread novice” tries something allegedly simple: making fennel-and-nigella-seed naan and bannock bread. Can you imagine anybody on Nailed It even knowing what a nigella seed is, let alone using it as an ingredient? Bless those people, but they can’t even sort out the ingredients to use in a basic cupcake.

The Freewheeling Attitude of James Morton

James, the youngest baker and one of the more talented, is constantly flying by the seat of his pants. When the judges stop by his station and ask him how to plans to execute his next creation — including a pair of Paris-Brests that he wants to turn into a bicycle — he inevitably says, “I don’t know.” By the end, he’s got poor Sue Perkins putting her head in her hands out of exasperation. Somehow, though, he manages to keep turning in star-level bakes.

The Calming Effect of It All

Maybe it’s the niceness, or the Britishisms, or the disappearing oven doors, or the sight of sheep peacefully grazing in the grass, or perhaps that on inclement weather days, it’s possible to hear the pitter-pat of raindrops on the canvas tent roof. Whatever it is, I am convinced that if The Great British Baking Show could be converted into a substance, you could sell it at any medical-marijuana dispensary. I breathe more easily and instantly relax when I watch it. I’d say that’s reason enough to tune in at the end of another draining, dreadful week in the land of (allegedly) overly sweet cherry pie.

Thank Goodness, The Great British Baking Show Is Back