Jessie Raymond: Stodgy clangers & welcome civility

While browsing through Netflix over the holidays, I discovered “The Great British Baking Show.”
I’m in love.
Beaten down by the increasingly distressing onslaught of daily news, I have found this show to be the perfect escape. It’s got everything: a gentle pastoral setting, British accents, yummy-looking sweets, witty repartee and a competition so civilized that the contestants sometimes help one another. Really.
It’s a far cry from any American reality show — food-related or otherwise. In fact, with the lack of a cash prize or calculated backstabbing, it’s hardly recognizable.
To get ratings, American shows play up conflicts and create animosity where none need exist. As a person who found kindergarten games of musical chairs to be too mean-spirited, I’ve always imagined a reality show in which people got along.
Now I’ve found it.
“The Great British Baking Show” takes place under a white party tent set among the gardens of a British estate. Inside, at pastel-painted bakers’ stations, average Brits of all ages and races compete for glory rather than money. It’s wild.
In more recent seasons, the judges are Paul and Prue — a pair who clearly know their way around a crème pâtissière. Each week, they rate the contestants on three challenges.
First, bakers present their own personal favorites. Then they move on to the technical challenge, where Paul and Prue order them to bake a fancy mystery treat, such as a “félange pulée” or “hargetküchen” or some such thing that I — and often they — have never heard of.
Given only a list of ingredients and vague instructions, they sift, whip, fold, fill and guess their way to what they hope is the desired end product.
Where in American reality shows, contestants might trash-talk one another to create drama, here the tension mounts when a baker overwhips his or her sponge.
But trust me: It’s riveting.
Last is a “showstopper,” where the bakers get nearly a full day to create a masterpiece. Here, these otherwise unassuming Brits — who in their daily lives are investment bankers, stay-at-home dads, stuntwomen and more — spin sugar into glass and build working locomotives out of buttercream frosting. All the while, they cheer one another on.
“This,” I say, choking back tears and pointing at the screen, “is how it should be.”
After each challenge, Paul and Prue taste and rank the entries on flavor (or “flavour,” I suppose) and appearance. And at the end of each show, one sad baker gets sent home, leaving the remaining contestants (and me) weeping.
“We’ll really miss Nigel. His ganache was unparalleled,” they say, drying their tears with wads of fondant.
The judges’ critiques are honest but gentle. Prue, for example, once said, “I’m afraid your clanger is a bit stodgy.”
I know now that a clanger is a sort of meat pie, and I assume from Prue’s tone that “stodgy” is not a quality one looks for in a clanger. It doesn’t matter. It was so quintessentially British that I clapped like a toddler when I heard her say it.
What’s not to love about this show? There’s little confrontation, the tone is light and the humor (“humour”) is quite bawdy — more so than you’d find on American networks — with all the double entendres you’d expect in a show full of tarts and nuts.
Still, there are crises: Sometimes contestants burn their madeleines, and once an oven door fell off.
One woman cried over everything, all the time, from her lopsided cake to Paul’s vicious criticism — “Your filling is smooth, but I’m not tasting the orange.” I worried that when she finally did get eliminated she might run herself through with the pointy end of a gingerbread Christmas tree.
But when the time came, she took her ouster gracefully, leaving her keening, mournful mates in the tent and tearfully thanking the producers for the best experience she’d ever had.
After the winner is named in the final show of each season, all the original contestants return, along with friends and family, for a joyful celebration on the lawn. They hug, they laugh, they reminisce.
And for a moment — stodgy clangers aside — all is right with the world.
These days, it’s exactly what I need.

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