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Why ‘The Great British Bake-Off’ was the perfect tranquiliser TV for 2020

The world’s most pleasant reality show has proved a hypnotic oasis in this shitstorm of a year

Will Gleason
Written by
Will Gleason

Over the last year, as the various frights of 2020 piled up in a seemingly endless parade of plague, conflict and trashy pod dating shows, I found myself returning time and time again to a pristine white tent in the English countryside. Fans of ‘The Great British Bake-Off’ – or ‘The Great British Baking Show’, as it’s known in the US – surely know the one I’m describing. It’s pitched on a grassy lawn near a big old house surrounded by happily chirping wildlife. (Yes, somehow even the rabbits seem to chirp.) Within the tent, you’ll find two rows of neatly organized baking stations, one for each contestant competing on the show. Throughout this chaotic year, it’s served as an unparalleled, soul-calming, sleep-inducing escape.

It’s not exactly a new phenomenon that people turn to escapist fare during stressful times, but this year has been so incredibly anxiety-provoking, so dreadfully ‘unprecedented’ (as we’re all now used to hearing) that ‘GBBO’ has been the only show that’s come even remotely close to rising to the occasion. In the most recent season, it’s even had to go to surreal lengths to do so – creating a self-contained, flour-stocked quarantine zone to allow bakers to compete safely. The sugary series may have been on the air for a decade, but our cortisol-drenched 2020 has been the year we’ve needed it the most.

Nothing else has come close to helping me relax to such an extent this year

Over the past eight months, I have watched multiple seasons, developed a new haughty disdain for artificial flavourings and managed to stay awake all the way through probably fewer than half of the episodes. As much as upbeat music and low-stakes conflict, I now associate the show with defensively yelling, ‘I’m awake!’ (I’m never really awake.)

I mean this as a huge compliment. Nothing else has come close to helping me relax to such an extent this year.

What is it that makes the show such a soothing 2020 remedy? For a start, it’s the almost total lack of conflict. I was introduced to the show by my boyfriend as lockdown loomed in March of this year. Trying to get my head around the concept, I asked him what the winning contestant took home every week. ‘They’re Star Baker,’ he said. ‘Right,’ I replied. ‘But what do they get?’ Affronted, he looked at me as if I’d just asked him why bread bakes in an oven. ‘They get to be Star Baker,’ he replied, slowly, to help me better understand. Eventually, I found out that at the end of each season, one person goes home with a new cake stand.

To these New York ears, the British accents give ‘GBBO’ an extra soothing boost. But added to that, I think it also helps if, going in, you know next to nothing about actual baking. It’s hard to get too actively invested in something that feels, in many ways, like it’s taking place in a foreign language. I often find myself repeating certain phrases back to the television during each episode like I’m under the spell of a master hypnotist. ‘Bit underbaked,’ I’ll mumble. ‘Bit underbaked. Bit underbaked. Bit underbaked…’ Boom. Asleep.

That being said, I don’t think a show about, say, competitive woodworking would meet our melatonin-lacking moment quite like this one. Partly, that’s due to the comforting associations we all have with baked goods. But it also seems to be the result of conscious decisions made by the producers to lull us into a state of happy relaxation through their pastel-coloured, on-screen lullaby. ‘What is that random baby doing in the opening credits?’ you might ask yourself. Or: ‘Why do they keep cutting away from the baking to B-roll of tiny ducks?’ But before you can think it through too much, you’re already asleep.

Each episode is a visual weighted blanket of juicing, mixing, kneading and staring at oven doors

What’s really cemented my connection to the show, though, has been a phenomenon similar to what happens when you’re drifting away in bed at night and suddenly have an image of yourself tripping, jolting you awake. In such a vulnerable, receptive state, when anything goes wrong, it feels like the end of the world. It’s the same with ‘Bake Off’. The moment Steph self-sabotaged in the Season 10 finale or the time Dave’s cakes went flying in the Season 11 premiere now feel as emotionally traumatic and important to me as when I had my wisdom teeth removed.

Thankfully, those shocking moments are few and far between. For the most part, each episode remains a visual weighted blanket of juicing, mixing, kneading and staring at oven doors. If I had to create an illustrated recipe for the show similar to the ones shown to describe what each contestant is attempting to bake, it would be this: ‘The Great British Bake-Off is aiming for something light this week in their latest confection. Covered with a sweet layer of iced puns from hosts Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas and gentle ribbing from judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith, the delicious base consists of warm feelings between contestants and a mildly tart misreading of a recipe.’ And also cardamom. Everyone’s always using cardamom for some reason.

In conclusion: it’s the perfect bedtime treat. As we head into the finale of Season 11 (I think it’s Dave’s to lose), I’ll absolutely miss having a new episode of the show every week to calm my perpetually fraying nerves. But I can at least console myself knowing I can go back and rewatch all the ones I’ve slept through in the past.

More TV to get you through tough times:

‘Samurai Champloo’ is my small-screen happy place

How Netflix brought ’80s Britain to life for ‘The Crown’

‘Star Wars: The Clone Wars’ is the one thing getting me through lockdown

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