A long time ago, on a TV far, far away with much worse resolution, cooking shows were the domain of Julia Childs, Emeril, and Ming Tsai. They were gentle-souled culinary giants, one-person shows who earned their way into the public consciousness with home cooking and easy affability. In 1993, The Food Network crawled out of the ocean onto land, and six years later, it brought us Iron Chef. From that first screamed "Allez cuisine!" everything changed. Now, after years of Iron Chef-inspired spin-offs, the new smash-hit import of The Great British Bake Off arrived to jump start the next stage of cooking show evolution, even as it collapses on itself like a dying soufflé star.
As it stands, Bake Off airs to 196 countries and managed to draw an average of 13.4 million UK viewers for last season's finale — the biggest TV audience of the year and nearly matching The World Cup Final's 15 million during a 5-minute peak (with 14.5 million). Like a gastronomic messiah, cookery TV historians will one day point to times before The Great British Bake Off (BGBBO) and anno-The Great British Bake Off (AGBBO). But what causes this show to be the next revolution in cooking shows? Let's take a look see what this means for everything anno-Bake Off.
Before-Bake Off: The Cruel World Of Culinary Cooking
Like the mythological marriage of Echidna and Typhon, the aforementioned Iron Chef spawned all sorts of monstrous offspring. Producers saw the cultural phenomenon of Chairman Kaga and his endless parade of Technicolor Dreamcloaks and they raced to find the same effortful effortless concoction of insane pageantry, haute cuisine, challenges, time pressure, and celebrity judges (non-Japanese division).
From that beautifully mad moment, we received Masterchef and Kitchen Nightmares, bloated Gordon Ramsay-driven vehicles full of more spewing invective than my annual Thanksgiving family reunion dinner. These were reality shows built on the sturdy triple pylons of contestant drama, celebrity judge personalities, and crushing critiques that would make Simon Cowell blush. Even kinder versions that I have enjoyed like Restaurant Impossible involved a full ego bath from the bespectacled mountain of Robert Irvine or the high school hissing of Top Chef contestants.
Let's be real. Reality TV got a little mean.
We were watching the gale-force winds of a British-Scottish blowhard and more drunken flirtations than an episode of The Bachelor. How many times were you watching a cooking show and wondering, "Gee, I want to know more about this contestant's tragic backstory or see them weeping into their Verizon Wireless-driven Samsung phone as they trade half-coherent pleasantries with their long-forgotten children?"
The answer is never. And so The Great British Bake Off was born.
Anno-Bake Off: Mary Berry's Baking Renaissance!
It's so difficult not to label this section "Bake Off's Winning Recipe for Success" and I immediately feel a scourging empathy for a thousand beat writers and editors right now. But more seriously, how did Bake Off hear our collective cries of dismay and come to usher in the new era of AGBBO?
The truth is that the program went back to basics. Like the days of cooking TV yore, Bake Off settled into a few tried and true traditions.
1. Straightforward Challenges
No longer did contestants have to bake with one hand tied behind their back with only three ingredients from the mystery basket in the middle of a desert while sacrificing a virgin beneath a gibbous moon. Bake Off contestants get all the ingredients they need and a time limit. For the Showstopper Challenge, they even get a week to research and prepare. Done.
2. Good Scientific Method
Bake Off gave up on traveling, unlike the semi-globetrotting ways of Top Chef. All the budget it needs is a tent on a greensward that looks like the Easter Bunny threw up on it. Furthermore, all contestants have the same challenge. All other variables remain equal, and thus we cannot decry any unfairly given advantages or disadvantages. Shocking. Apparently we like the game unrigged.
3. Less Drama
In America, we have this thing called E! and TMZ. But Bake Off proves that there's an audience for a very different type of drama. If I want to watch further hair-pulling, tragic backstories, or general sobbing, I can look towards my Thanksgiving family reunion and my love life. That being said, GBBO isn't without its scandals. Perhaps the best example is 2014's 'bingate', when Bake Off hopeful Diana was coined an 'Ice Cream-melting Supervillain' after she removed another contestant's baked Alaska from the freezer. At the same time, Bake Off doesn't need the manufactured drama of the following familiar tune:
"And the one being eliminated is......[commercial break] ...[dramatic playback of previous 10 seconds] ... to be continued..."
The "only" current drama Bake Off is experiencing is its entire dissolution and the defection of hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins and judge Merry Berry, while Paul Hollywood trudges on, thumbs in belt loops. Anyone enjoying that?
4. Sugar, Spice, And Everything Nice
When I first started watching, I could not figure out why there needed to be a 1:3 judge/host ratio to contestants. Already, Food Network's Chopped had taken things to extremes with three judges and the talented but utterly-dispensable host Ted Allen. Then I heard the sweet musical zingers of Mel and Sue interplay like a cheekier, dirtier version of Aaron Sorkin.
And while Paul can occasionally veer into douche territory, he could never fully let loose in the matronly patrician presence of Merry Berry and her beautifully-coiffed hair and bomber jackets. (That is, sadly, until now.)
The Second Coming: How New Shows Will Use The 'Baking Bible'
Who knows what will happen with Bake Off's move to Channel 4 and the loss of its three kindest horsemen. Will it revert to BGBBO times? Will it come back better than ever and heal the baking blind?
I have no idea, but I do hope that producers have seen how Bake Off has resonated with audiences and will move to evolve, perhaps even over-evolve, as they always do. I would like to see a show that knows that bigger is not always better. That mean doesn't always mean interesting. In the land of reality TV, chemistry is king.
Whether it continues its viewing figures as it moves to the UK's Channel 4 is almost irrelevant to its overall success. The show's format has already been sold for recreation in 20 different countries, with the likes of Holland repeating remarkable audience numbers seen in Britain.
I want my judges to be more an episode of Friends and less Gordon Ramsay's bulging temple vein. Already, Top Chef has tried to course correct from the consensus-hated ridiculousness of its challenges during its Texas season. Chopped continues to be a mainstay on Food Network because of its simple yet fair premise: cooks working with the same ingredients with the same time constraints in the same kitchen under small, intimate circumstances.
The best model might in fact be the recent explosion in ratings of HGTV (Home and Garden Television for those outside America). This basic cable and satellite channel has prospered on the backs of a few key franchises like House Hunters and Property Brothers, and a slew of spin-offs run by familiar faces. These are small scale shows, some competition driven, but others designed to help people find, refurbish, or redecorate their houses. In these times of global sturm and drang, it's not shocking to see people gravitate to compassionate small stories.
In other words, I can see cooking shows cycling back to pre-Iron Chef times, when big names put on a gleaming white apron and showed you how to brunoise a carrot, except with a little more outside participation.
Cooking competitions are at their best when they're kept simple, like a sauce reducing, boiling off the liquid and distilling down into the purest, clearest consommé or a beautiful gastrique, with the acidic and the sweet.
Still need some convincing? Just look at these hidden cake designs and tell me you're not impressed:
But tell me, what do you want to see in the AGGBO future of cooking shows?