'Great British Baking Show' is the COVID-free TV comfort food we need right now
The West Coast is on fire. A reality-star president is nudging the country closer to a constitutional crisis on a near-daily basis. Schools are closed and millions remain out of work thanks to an unchecked pandemic. We've lost real-life heroes who fought for change in Hollywood and Washington. And the things we normally do to escape — movies, concerts, long dinners with friends in establishments with four walls and a roof — are unavailable to us.
But, hey, at least we have "The Great British Bake-Off" — or, as I am legally required to call it while writing on American soil, "The Great British Baking Show."
Landing like a teeny, tiny cherry atop the giant crap sundae of 2020, the world's most soothing competition series returned to Netflix Friday.
If the record-setting triumph of "Schitt's Creek" at this year's Emmys proves anything, it's that viewers right now are desperate for a bit of TV comfort food. "GBBO" has always offered a pastel-hued respite from the typically cynical world of reality TV, an unscripted sanctuary where no one is ever thrown under a bus and seemingly everyone in the ensemble has, in fact, come to make friends. But the show's charms have perhaps never been more evident than now, at the tail end of a year that has already lasted three decades.
The show's return is something of a miracle. Originally scheduled to go into production in April, this season finally began filming in July. Perhaps aware the world was desperate for a serving of good news — and some new TV to watch — producers scrambled to get the episodes to air less than a month after wrapping.
"GBBO" makes its return at a moment when interest in baking has surged. In the early months of quarantine, so many people were passing the time by baking — especially bread — that there was a nationwide shortage of yeast (leading, in turn, to a craze for sourdough). Many of us have imagined Paul Hollywood pointing to our sad homemade ciabatta loaves and saying in his Liverpool accent: "It's undah-proooooved."
'Bake-off bubble': Fittingly, the season premiere opens with a brief, gentle acknowledgment of the challenging times we're living in. In voiceover, new host Matt Lucas explains that the bakers have volunteered to leave their loved ones and live in "a bake-off bubble." We hear from contestants about the difficulties of leaving their families for seven weeks and see an NHS-themed caked decorated with masked health care workers. (The U.K. broadcast opened with a topical sketch starring Lucas as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Whether because it was too topical or too narrowly focused on British politics, the bit didn't make the Netflix cut.)
"Once we all walk into the tent, I think it will get back to something very familiar," says Hollywood. And he's right: If you watched the rest of the hourlong episode, you would have little idea it was filmed in the middle of a pandemic.
No one is wearing a mask or face shield. People stand inches apart, with no plastic glass partitions to be seen, grazing one another's shoulders and elbows with wanton abandon. They even ... hug. And if production assistants are frantically wiping down every piece of equipment in the tent — as they probably are — their efforts do not appear on camera. And, to be honest, the sense of normalcy is a profound relief. The real world is a waking nightmare, but in the tent, it's cake week.
The show is a portal to a gleaming dimension where COVID-19 has been, if not eliminated, then at least contained, offering a sweet glimpse of what life would be like if we all could access tests as easily as the president or the cast of "Friends" before hunkering down at a historic estate in the English countryside for seven weeks straight.
How they did it: In case you were wondering how producers pulled it off: The show returned to production in July under strict precautions. Everyone involved isolated for nine days and got three tests before filming began. Unlike in the Before Times, when contestants would go home during the week and return to the tent to bake each weekend, they stayed on site — mostly isolated from family and friends — for the duration of the contest.
More than 100 contestants, producers, crew members and hotel staffers holed up at a hotel for the entire seven-week production. Producers even set up individual test kitchens where the bakers could practice. Some customs, like the Hollywood handshake, are reportedly gone — and honestly, I will not miss this unhygienic gimmick one bit.
The bakers this season are a reassuringly familiar mix of established "Bake Off" types.
There's the Wunderkind (Peter, from Edinburgh, who specializes in gluten-free treats). There's the Endearingly Eccentric Older Guy Who Likes Classical Music (Rowan, whose signature bake is inspired by "The Magic Flute"). And there's the Acerbic Young Woman With Bold Eye Makeup (Lottie, who, we are told in one of the most amazing sentences uttered in the English language, "unwinds from her job as a pantomime producer by listening to Viking metal whilst baking and doing yoga.")
Spoilers ahead: The signature challenge is a Battenberg, a two-toned sponge cake wrapped in marzipan that, frankly, seems like way more work than it's worth. The editing, as always, is a bit of a giveaway. Right away, we know Loriea, a radiographer baking a blue-tinted bubble-gum-and-cream-soda-flavored cake using bottled extracts, is probably not long for this world. ("What I love is you've gone for everything that is artificial," says judge Prue Leith in the sickest burn of the episode.)
The technical challenge is a pineapple upside-down cake, which proves vexing for a number of the contestants. Sura, an anxious pharmacist who seems a likely candidate for this season's dark horse, accidentally bumps into another contestant, Dave, and knocks his cakes to the ground. Common decency erupts: Sura is so guilt-ridden she cries. Dave feels bad that she feels so bad. Then Lucas takes the blame, joking that Sura was "hypnotized" by his beauty. Naturally, Sura ends up winning the round.
The episode culminates in an endearingly bonkers showstopper challenge that, in its utterly harmless way, captures the mind-bending weirdness of the last few months without piercing the joyful "GBBO" bubble. The bakers are asked to make cake busts of their favorite celebrities, with subjects ranging from immediately identifiable pop icons such as Freddie Mercury to more, um, idiosyncratic stars, like author Bill Bryson and Blink-182 singer Tom DeLonge.
In previous seasons, the highly skilled competitors on "GBBO" have whipped up cakes that looked eerily like picnic baskets, bowls of ramen and BLT sandwiches, so I was surprised that so many of the busts wound up resembling something from "Nailed It!" Marc's bloated David Bowie will haunt my dreams for weeks to come.
And when Paul took a knife to Lottie's "chocolate and lime Louis Theroux" — which looked alarmingly like a hunchbacked Larry Kramer — I screamed, not for the first time in recent weeks, "What is even happening?" But for once, I laughed too.
'THE GREAT BRITISH BAKING SHOW'
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)