I’ve been watching Bake Off for the past week obsessively, and I was doing the same thing this time last year. But the rest of the year, no interest. What is it about this show that makes it so addictive, especially when you are feeling down (I do not like the whole “shortest days of the year” thing in December and January).
There’s one way of looking at media studies where you say “something is important because it is popular”. If an artifact is popular, it is telling us something about humanity, it is worthy of intense study. This is a version of media studies that tends to be a bit out of fashion these days, it’s more about “this is what SHOULD be popular” rather than “this is what IS popular, why?” Even more rare, “this is what IS popular, why-without-judgement?”.
I am totally addicted to Bake Off right now. And it is a shockingly popular show worldwide with everyone. Why is that? What can we learn about society, humanity, etc. from the popularity of this show?
I just watched the first season and it was fascinating to see the magic of the show come together, and how it clearly surprised even the makers of the show. The first season was a 6 episode one off about the history of food and British baking, which traveled all over England to focus on the food from different regions. And in between there was a fun little bit where you saw amateur bakers try to recreate these classic foods. The amateur bakers competition was just a bonus, not the point of the show. Who would be interested in watching a bunch of average people bake?
That makes this part of an exclusive club in terms of popular media, something created by the audience not the makers. How did this happen?
Looking back at season 1, I think what makes it work is that the producers may not have taken the cooking competition part seriously, but the bakers and judges did. These are people who really REALLY care about baking, and even when it was just a one off oddity show, the amateur bakers were excited to do the best they possibly could and the judges did them the compliment of treating it like a real competition. Not for the cameras, just for themselves. And that honest spirit came through on camera and charmed the viewers.
What is remarkable is that the honest spirit has continued now through 12 seasons (or 13? I always get confused). It’s become an international juggernaut now, and winners routinely get book deals and celebrity and all kinds of things besides “just” winning a baking competition. I keep thinking someone is going to enter and learn to cook just to become famous, but so far as I can tell no one with that intention has actually won or even become a finalist. The level of skill and imagination expected means you really truly need to LOVE baking in order to even get accepted, let alone make it past the first round.
That also means the producers can’t control it. There is no carefully coordinated “popularity contest” happening, the most charmless and least interesting person can end up being the winner. Each episode someone is sent home, based purely on their cooking. Some of the most charming contestants leave in week 1 or 2, and some of the least charming end up staying for the whole season. But that brings the question, is anyone truly charmless? The goal of this show becomes not “make us love the lovable” but rather “everyone has something to love about them”.
(I love the winner Frances Quinn, she worked hard and planned carefully and did her homework, but she wasn’t “pretty” or charming or any of that. You have to pay attention to appreciate her.)
But what makes a winner, if not TV popularity or experience (since they are all amateurs)? The structure of the show, the idea that you stay by being the not-worst each week in an increasingly small field, means that the winner is the one who improves the most, who constantly challenges themselves to do even better than the week before. The show becomes a story of human triumph, of who can overcome all their doubts and fears and succeed more than they believed they ever could.
What it reminds me of the most is the Olympics. That is, the Olympics as it was intended to be, amateurs who run or swim or bike for the pure joy of it in between living their “regular” lives, who invent their own training techniques and try new things and dedicate themselves to something just because they enjoy it. Most of all, there was that sense of “I know how hard that is, that is something I can do just way way better, I can appreciate what I am seeing”. Now, the Olympics has become watching professionals do impossible things for our entertainment, they no longer feel like humans.
Which brings me to the actual thing they are doing, baking. Everyone cooks, everyone eats. The basics that we see them do, stirring things in a saucepan or mixing dough, we understand that. And we can understand the difficulty of achieving a higher level of result in a personal way. I truly can’t think of anything else as universal. And TV producers can’t either, there’ve been imitation shows made for everything from sewing to glass blowing, and it just doesn’t work.
So you have a competition structured so that it is purely merit based, a TV show focused on making us like EVERYONE because they can’t control who wins, and a skill that every human has some vague idea of what it actually requires. And on top of that, something special that happens in the tent itself which we, the viewer, only partially see.
Again, that is in the very first season. These bakers didn’t think this would be anything but a fun weekend baking and then back to regular life. But it turned into an amazing journey of self-discovery, confronting personal demons, finding a community that lifted them up, and returning to regular life completely changed. And that journey is FASCINATING. Later seasons become almost predictable with bakers talking about how amazing this is, how meaningful, how everything. But it doesn’t get tiresome because you can tell that it is true and sincere every year.
Maybe it’s because baking is such a solitary thing? And a giving thing? The people who migrate towards the hobby, and excel at it, are ones who like to work quietly by themselves and then give to others. Contestants tend to fall into categories, the stay at home Mom, the lost young student, the sweet caretaker. A surprisingly large number of people in healthcare are contestants, and teachers. If you put this group of people together in a tent, they will lift each other up, they will for once feel like they are being given love instead of taking it.
Everyone responds to that energy. The judges I think treat the bakers the way they would treat any student in their long career, baking isn’t a “competitive” sort of experience, it’s about passing on knowledge and helping others. The “hosts” spend most of their time truly hosting, making everyone feel as comfortable and happy as possible in the tent. And behind the scenes there is an army of support workers who give the bakers the kind of respect for their work that is the opposite of what they are used to.
So, Bake Off works because it is about Bakers, not because it is about baking.
And as for why I find it particularly addictive only in December? I was thinking it was because I was depressed, because Christmas is cooking to me, because I need a distraction from all the stuff I am doing, but I don’t think it is that at all. Christmas time for me is about my own high standards for doing things for other people that they won’t even really notice. I don’t handmake Christmas presents for the recipients, or do unique Christmas cards for all my DCIB readers, or buy the perfect gift for all my friends, I do it for myself. The effort is like a personal affirmation of my connection with and love for these people. Watching Bake Off is watching people do things in the same spirit.
At least, that’s what I think. What do you think?