We as television audiences have been trained to see reality television as either brainless background noise or venues for people to be terrible to each other. Competition reality shows are either craft studies with drama or deeply ridiculous character plays for you to laugh at people: the sub-genre also fails its audience. Somehow, The Great British Baking Show is none of this. It very well could be the best reality show ever.
Why? Because it doesn’t feel like a reality show, especially not a competition. It is the rare television show that is funny and dramatic and smart and based in real skill—and it’s executed with manners and respect. It’s a happy show! You watch it and you feel like you are supporting something because the show itself is supportive. This is an extreme rarity in reality television.
The show is about English amateur bakers who are gathered for a few weeks to bake in a tent near a fancy house. The show’s hosts and judges—comedy duo Mel and Sue, culinary staple Mary Berry, and devilishly handsome chef Paul Hollywood—provide three challenges for the group of bakers every episode: they have a Signature Challenge where they create a specific food item (a cake, loaf of bread, etc.) in their own style, a Technical Challenge where they must blindly produce a classic item to strict guidelines, and a Showstopper Challenge, where they must make something both visually appealing and delicious. These parameters have the making for a Kitchen Nightmares reality of people killing each other but, because the show is British, everyone is polite and lovely and wanting to see each other succeed.
No one is putting anyone down, either. Instead of “drama,” the show is based in facts: if you did a bad job, you did a bad job. Your errors aren’t sensationalized nor are they lampooned: they are what they are. There is a deep feeling of loss when people are eliminated because everyone—from hosts to judges to contestants—wants everyone to succeed. It is a competition, yes, but no one wants to be painted as an idiot. This show succeeds in making each competitor look like their best self.
The show is an exception. It’s a rare subject matter (food) placed in a nice context (a private, confessionless patch of English country) with nice people (well respected judges who don’t bullshit people). It works because it has all the right pieces working together in perfect harmony. This is why its failing as an American remake is not surprising: we deeply lack a charm our friends from across the pond have. This show could never work as an American something. We don’t have the respect for each other.
You may think this is ridiculous or impossible or something that simply is overhyped: I assure you it is not. The show really is excellent. I’ve worked on many, many competition reality shows and they all suck the life out of you. There is no happiness. The contestants are constantly taken advantage of, worked and exploited until they have no other means of communicating but in bitchicisms and madness. This is American reality television.
The Great British Baking Show is exceptional. It’s the rare reality television item that has no other agenda than showing people making while on even ground. There aren’t any shifty producer tricks: it’s all sweets and savories, smiles and support. Also: it’s free. You can catch it on PBS every week, on television and online. You can also catch the entire first season (at least in America: the show is on its sixth season) in its entirety at PBS.org.