Grok My Enthusiasm (29)
July 27, 2016
One in a weekly series of enthusiastic posts contributed by HILOBROW friends and regulars.
I started watching pirated episodes of The Great British Bake Off (distributed in the US under the name The Great British Baking Show) last winter as a low effort, low drama balm while I prepared for my comprehensive exams. I was reading on the history and theory of social movements. To paraphrase Terry Pratchett, it was a lot of peasants who didn’t want to be peasants anymore, and since they had pitchforks and the nobles had guns, they stopped being peasants really quickly. It was upsetting. I was upset. My partner was tired of my being upset about history and peasants, so took to plopping me on the couch with a cup of tea, a biscuit, a fuzzy blanket, and The Great British Bake Off at the end of the reading day.
Reader, this show is a fluffy, sugary, springy delight. It is the petit fours of competitive reality television: a charmingly crafted morsel, whose brightly colored, tea party simplicity elides the work that goes into its construction and the crazed social signaling in its presentation.
For me, the baking bits of The Great British Bake Off are secondary (though I know more now about different kinds of pastry dough and the history of pork pies than I ever thought possible or is perhaps strictly necessary). What is truly delightful is the way the show takes so seriously the work of Being British Through Baking and the subtle subversion of it. In terms of camp nationalism, The Great British Bake Off is the National Costume segment of Miss Universe, with full fat butter and caster sugar subbed in for sequins and feathers. When Mary Berry, the grandmotherly, stylish heart and soul of the show, compliments a baker’s “clearly defined layers,” the echoes of British classism reverberate through the competition tent, which is decked out like every fussily pastel tea shop you’ve ever seen and invariably situated on the grounds of this or that grand old estate. The competition occasionally breaks for lessons in British food history, when hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc flirt shamelessly with charming experts on Victorian kitchen equipment or Elizabethan pastry or Quaker biscuits. The segments are bookended by shots of appallingly adorable animals: Hampshire sheep, songbirds, tufted ducks, squirrels (one squirrel in particular, but no spoilers! You’ll know it when you see it).
Unlike American reality TV, which spoonfeeds the audience a precrafted stream of interpersonal drama, the personal lives of the contestants, judges, and hosts are completely irrelevant to the competition, making them ripe for wild, wine-fueled speculation that makes the most out of every offhand comment or stray look. For those looking to get in on the fun of giggling madly at the secret meaning of fondant bears named Paul, Season Four particularly rewards this style of narratively involved viewership. And the baking scandals! Custards have been swiped, ice cream has been inadvertently melted. For chockablock drama, actual and imagined, Season Four wins the blue ribbon, but Season Six, on PBS now (though called “Season Three” on this side of the pond) has its share of nail biting moments.
The show’s contestant are cheerfully diverse in race, age, country and region of origin, and sexual orientation, a fact that has caused no small amount of teeth gnashing on the part of the Daily Mail and other right-wingers. But The Great British Bake Off is all at once cosmopolitan, campy, crafty, and kind in a way that American reality TV has no interest in being. Since its run-away success, the BBC has spun the format off into The Great British Sewing Bee and The Great Pottery Throw Down, along with roughly half a dozen baking-related spin-offs.
Even though I’m done reading histories of failed revolutions, The Great British Bake Off still cannot fail to delight me. Sue Perkins’s dreadful puns, Mary Berry’s flawless jackets and scarves, the cheerful villainy of judge Paul Hollywood, the weather of the English countryside, which has as much personality as any of them, and of course the incredible, never ending train of baked goods. In a television landscape that is, particularly now, dark and combative, the Bake Off tent is a sweet oasis where the biggest problem is whether your trifle is boozy enough for Mary Berry.
(My only spoiler: It could always be boozier.)
GROK MY ENTHUSIASM: Rob Wringham on THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF LUNCH | Gordon Dahlquist on WEEKEND | Joe Alterio on MILLION YEAR PICNIC | Adrienne Crew on LA BARONNE EMILE D’ERLANGER | Josh Glenn on THE SURVIVAL SAMPLER | Alix Lambert on THE SKIES BELONG TO US | Adam McGovern on PENELOPE and CHAVEZ RAVINE | Rob Wringham on THE LYKE WAKE WALK | Mark Kingwell on NORTH STAR SNEAKERS & GWG JEANS | Gordon Dahlquist on FELLINI SATYRICON | Erik Davis on AH! | Devin McKinney on WHISPERING AFRAID | Mimi Lipson on 1973 SEARS ROEBUCK CATALOG | Jessamyn West on MOSS | Josh Glenn on THE SCOUT HOW BOOK | Brian Berger on SLACKER | Alix Lambert on ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS | Chelsey Johnson on MONOTREMES | Devin McKinney on THE BUTCHER COVER | Flourish Klink on ONE DIRECTION | Gordon Dahlquist on FULL METAL JACKET | Allegra Huston on CLOTHESLINE | Jenny Davidson on POWERLIFTING | Evan Narcisse on REZ | Deborah Wassertzug on VEGETARIAN MEATBALLS | Chris Spurgeon on WALLACE AND GROMIT | Mandy Keifetz on BENEFICIAL MICROBES | Annie Nocenti on MARKS ON WALLS | Molly Sauter on THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF | William Nericcio on LAND OF THE LOST | Dan Fox on “VOICE OF GOD” RADIO DJS | Brandi Brown on WIKIPEDIA TALK | Claire Lehmann on THE APPARATUS REVEAL | Alice Boone on COSTUME JEWELRY | Colin Dickey on WIDESPREAD PANIC | Anshuman Iddamsetty on THE FULL BODY PROJECT | John Hilgart on MAKING GRATEFUL DEAD ALBUMS | Rob Wringham on STEVEN UNIVERSE | John Overholt on DECKLE EDGES | James Hannaham on HABIT PATTERNS | Jessamyn West on THE PUBLIC LIBRARY SYSTEM | Adam McGovern on THE SPACE GIANTS | Brian Berger on MEDIUM COOL | Chris Spurgeon on THE DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT | Joe Alterio on TABLETOP WARGAMING | Mimi Lipson on TRASH PICKING | Jason Grote on CZECH CINEMA | Roxane Gay on AUTOMATED CAR WASH | Dan Fox on JULIA DAVIS | Amy Thielen on BINGO | Steph Burt on FEIJOA.
NERD YOUR ENTHUSIASM (4Q2021): RAIN | ARDUIN | SEINFELD | MAP INSERTS | TIME | & 20 other nerdy passions. SWERVE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (3Q2021): WARHOL’S WALT WHITMAN | 70, GIRLS, 70 | TYRAEL’S MIGHT | THE LEON SUITES | SOLARNAUTS | & 20 other never-realized cultural productions. FIVE-O YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2Q2021): DARK SHADOWS | MANNIX | GET SMART | THE ADDAMS FAMILY | I DREAM OF JEANNIE | & 20 other Sixties (1964–1973) TV shows. FERB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (1Q2021): STEVEN UNIVERSE | TOP CAT | REN & STIMPY | SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER | DRAGON BALL Z | & 20 other animated series. CARBONA YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2020): “Sex Bomb” | “Going Underground” | “Soft South Africans” | “Typical Girls” | “Human Fly” | & 20 other Seventies (1974–1983) punk singles. KLAATU YOU (2020 weekly): ZARDOZ | METROPOLIS | DARK STAR | SINS OF THE FLESHAPOIDS | SOLARIS | & dozens of other pre-STAR WARS sci-fi movies. CONVOY YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2019): THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE | ROLLERBALL | BLACK SUNDAY | SORCERER | STRAIGHT TIME | & 20 other Seventies (1974–1983) action movies. SERIOCOMIC (2019 weekly): LITTLE LULU | VIZ | MARSUPILAMI | ERNIE POOK’S COMEEK | HELLBOY | & dozens of other comics. TUBE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2018): LOONEY TUNES | THREE STOOGES | THE AVENGERS | ROCKY & BULLWINKLE | THE TWILIGHT ZONE | & 20 other Fifties (1954–1963) TV shows. WOWEE ZOWEE (2018 weekly): UNISEX | UNDER THE PINK | DUMMY | AMOR PROHIBIDO | HIPS AND MAKERS | & dozens of other Nineties (1994–2003) albums. KLUTE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2017): THE KILLERS | BANDE À PART (BAND OF OUTSIDERS) | ALPHAVILLE | HARPER | BLOW-UP | & 20 other Sixties (1964–1973) neo-noir movies. #SQUADGOALS (2017 weekly): THE WILD BUNCH | BOWIE’S BAND | THE BLOOMSBURY GROUP | THE HONG KONG CAVALIERS | VI ÄR BÄST! & dozens of other squads. GROK MY ENTHUSIASM (2016 weekly): THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF LUNCH | WEEKEND | MILLION YEAR PICNIC | LA BARONNE EMILE D’ERLANGER | THE SURVIVAL SAMPLER | & dozens more one-off enthusiasms. QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2016): “Tainted Love” | “Metal” | “Frankie Teardrop” | “Savoir Faire” | “Broken English” | & 20 other Seventies (1974–1983) new wave singles. CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2015): DARKER THAN YOU THINK | THE SWORD IN THE STONE | OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET | THIEVES’ HOUSE | QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST | & 20 other Thirties (1934–1943) fantasy novels. KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2014): ALDINE ITALIC | DATA 70 | TORONTO SUBWAY | JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | TODD KLONE | & 20 other typefaces. HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2013): “Spoonin’ Rap” | “Rapper’s Delight” | “Rappin’ Blow” | “The Incredible Fulk” | “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | & 20 other Seventies (1974–1983) hip-hop songs. KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2012): Justice or vengeance? | Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | “KHAAAAAN!” | “No kill I” | Kirk browbeats NOMAD | & 20 other Captain Kirk scenes. KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2011): THE ETERNALS | BLACK MAGIC | DEMON | OMAC | CAPTAIN AMERICA | & 20 other Jack Kirby panels.