“The Great British Baking Show” is that rare entertainment that sounds like a novelty, but in fact lives up to every word of its name. You could call it reality TV, perhaps, but it is more precisely a cooking gameshow that pulls together a dozen amateur bakers from around Britain to compete in a series of challenges that take place under a huge tent on the idyllic grounds of an English manor. Each show, the weakest baker is cut; in the season finale, the finest of three remaining bakers wins a very pretty glass plate. The stakes along the way, then, are all about who can create the most delicious art.
The most recent season of the show, now complete and available on Netflix for binging, might be one of the most soothing things to grace a screen in the age of … well, all the other shit happening in the world right now. There are no politics in “The Great British Baking Show,” no newsworthy events, no acknowledgement that the rest of the world is doing anything but waiting in the parlor waiting for tea and biscuits. If you want to reduce your concerns of the day down to whether the orange zest in someone’s sponge cake overpowered the ginger flavors, well, have I got a competitive baking show for you.
The BBC has been airing the show in some form since 2010; across the Atlantic it’s “The Great British Bake Off,” but because even inside of five little words something gets lost in translation between the Queen’s and your English, it had to become even more literal for Americans. Without having seen the inevitable spinoff on ABC, “The Great American Baking Show,” I urge you not to watch until you’ve dipped yourself into the British version. It’s got a strange mix of pluck and aloofness that cuts across the various ages, genders and races on the show. You’ll hear judge Paul Hollywood describe the interior of a donut as “stodgy.” You’ll hear one of the standout bakers, an India-born university student, describe himself in a single word as “depressing.” The joy all seems muted; the disappointments get stiff-upper-lipped; and even when bakers are inevitably dismissed, they cry tears of joy for having gotten the chance to make friends and to botch, say, a nonyeasted garlic naan on international TV.
A few episodes into the ninth season (Season 6 on Netflix), you’ll wonder how the producers managed to scrounge up the last people in the world for a reality-style show who remain oblivious to any of the tropes of the format. There’s no drama here, no preening; perhaps, again, the stakes are low enough not to attract your usual gallery of dirtbags. Instead you get bakers like Kim-Joy Hewlett, who wears sparkles on her face behind square-framed glasses and designs little cats on her cakes. Or Terry Hartill, a retired flight attendant who has a bit of a twirl to his moustache and fails spectacularly to design a scale-model of the Eiffel Tower in chocolate. The hosts, comedians Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding, wander around gently ribbing the contestants and keeping time. Meanwhile the judges — the aforementioned Mr. Hollywood, a baker’s son turned celebrity chef, and Prue Leith, a stately Renaissance woman in media and food — visit each baker’s station to take a temperature, so to speak, on how things are looking. They are kind and encouraging. The banter is light and witty. Then, it’s back to kneading and mixing.
How a show can be at once so calming and wholly not boring comes down to a deceptively tight bit of packaging. The colors are saturated just to the brink of surreality, almost like food-porn Instagram. (The surest measure here is that Hollywood’s blue eyes practically glow like those of a “Game of Thrones” white walker.) The personal narratives are so concise and clipped, there is not a spare second to grow tired of any one baker. And the whole thing is edited to within an inch of its very life, a density and precision of cuts that will recall a mid-2000s hip-hop video. You zip around this magical kitchen, hovering over boiling blueberries and the flub-thub of huge mixers and the Easter egg splashes of food dye and worried looks inside ovens to pray a pan of sweet rolls into yeasty ascension.
So often, the winner is the one who manages his time the best. You could do worse with your next hour than to watch the judges cut open a series of pistachio cakes and critique the firmness and uniformity of the layers. To watch is mesmerizing, and a calorie-free comfort food of its own.