“The Great Holiday Baking Show” Reviewed

Last night, ABC debuted The Great Holiday Baking Show, a four-part special, based on the smash hit The Great British Bake-Off (renamed The Great British Baking Show by PBS when they began importing it at the beginning of this year.) It aired at 10pm, which seemed a little odd for such a family friendly piece. Obviously the execs weren’t that sure about its prospects, and wanted to make sure there were lead-ins (two Charlie Brown Christmas specials aired before it) and alcohol consumed by the viewers before it came on.

There is a famous, perhaps slightly apocryphal story about how FOX originally brought Idol to America back in 2002. Someone high up on the FOX food chain had seen the UK show Pop Idol, and wanted to bring it to the US, convinced it would be a hit. But the edict that came with it was one that shocked everyone: Don’t Change Anything. The show must be imported as close to the original as humanly possible. Even though that meant doing dual hosts, one of whom would do bawdy borderline inappropriate jokes, despite that fact that America audiences do not go for duel hosts, or sexual innuendo of that kind. That meant bringing over cranky Simon Cowell as was, even though there was no evidence Americans liked that sort of personality. Even the Pop Idol logo stayed the same, with “American” merely replacing “Pop.” And the rest as the say, was history. No, the dual hosts didn’t work (by Season two they’d fired the one hired for the sexual bawdy behavior), and no one liked Simon Cowell, but by importing it with almost no changes, FOX avoided becoming yet more evidence that when US Network TV attempts to remake UK shows, they ruin them. In the process they made a show that wound up eclipsing the original.

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One can almost hear the same story being told at ABC, when it came to trying to recreate GBBO for the ABC/Disney audience. The Great British Bake Off is a *huge hit,* not just for the BBC but also on PBS. Whatever you do, Don’t Change Anything.

And that is how we arrived in the Tent, still stationed in Welford Park in Berkshire, but now mysteriously filled with Americans who cheer, instead of British people looking slightly dazed at being here. Everything else is the same. The title card. The introduction with the hosts out in the garden by the tents, with Nia Vardalos and her husband Ian Gomez attempting to ape the Sue-and-Mel rapid fire pitter patter. And here is Mary Berry, now accompanied by Johnny Iuzzini instead of Paul Hollywood, but still giving the same sort of rousing speeches to the bakers. The khaki colored aprons are on, the contestants shiver under umbrellas as they give post bake interviews outside the tent in the rain. We start with a Signature Bake, followed by a surprise Technical Challenge, and finish with a Show Stopper round. (I did note that the Technical Challenge was devoid of gingham, and the now-ginghamless altar was not referred to as such, one of the very few changes the production allowed. Because it was one of the very few changes, it also stuck out.) Here are the old-fashioned cook book sketches of the finished projects. Even the musical cues beneath the baking drama were exactly the same. Which only serves to make it even more incongruous, as the voices speaking above the music have all the wrong accents.

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And it’s that “everything’s the same!” but not! about the production that left me feeling weird about what I’d just watched. Here are the bakers, kneeling on the floor in front of their ovens, as crackers as ever, and yet, somehow it wasn’t as delightfully cute. Instead it felt slightly distressing. After all, they’ve been flown to the UK for this. Going home isn’t just popping back on the train and heading back to their lives, having had a fun weekend jaunt. They gave up their jobs, their lives and families to fly here and do this. The idea that the bakers do this only on weekends, and then go home to recharge and practice in their own kitchens is one of the underpinning factors that makes Bake Off feel so much more humane than the typical reality show. Just by flying the contestant to the UK, and putting them up in hotels where they can’t practice for days on end shows that the production in trying to keep “everything the same,” missed keeping the parts that needed to stay that way. Someone at ABC understands that the show works because everything feels so much nicer, but they’ve failed to understand the choices that are made with the contestant’s comfort in mind that gives it that sense of humanity, and instead has replaced it with everyone doing their best “we’re so nice!” impression. Moreover, by taking them away from their homes, one of the most important factor–that ability to come up with creative ideas, to practice and practice and practice over the course of the week in the comfort of their own kitchens–is just gone. (Yes, Mr. Iverson, we are talking about PRACTICE!) The Show Stopper results in particular were affected, with pieces being presented that were far shoddier than anything seen on Bake Off. I’m willing to bet money that it came from lack of time to conceptualize, and above all, practice.

Here is our new host Ian, cracking nearly the same joke we’ve heard Sue say about how the alcohol is for baking, nor for his cohost. Except that when Sue does it, it’s funny, because there’s a daftness to her delivery. And above all, she’s female. That matters. When Ian made the same joke last night, it felt like that uncomfortable sneer the husband makes at the party he’s throwing for his colleagues, because he’s passive aggressively upset at how much his wife drinks, and is making thoughtless sexist jokes to show that he’s the alpha in charge. But honestly, it wasn’t just him who was terrible. At least he was trying to ape what he’d seen on the original program, even if it fell flat. (Also, the “soggy bottom” jokes are for Pie Week, not Biscuit, err, Cookie Week. Please learn how baking works, Ian, and make a note of it.) Nia was just as bad, if not worse. She had clearly been told she talked too fast, and was overcompensating at all points, which made her sound terribly robotic at best, and dimwitted at worst. But the moment that brought it home to me was the post-Show Stopper discussion, when Mel and Sue traditionally sit Mary and Paul down and have them walk through their decision process. This is usually presented as Sue and Mel gossiping with the judges over tea. They lead the discussion. Here, Ian and Nia sat stiff as boards, not touching their tea cup props, while Mary led the talk. If you have no idea how to gossip over tea dearies, this is not the job for you.

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Also, and I’m not sure this would be as clear to the casual viewer, but the casting also felt…off. In refusing to change anything, the show allowed the British production to cast Americans. The result is six cast members all of whom felt like what UK people think of as American stereotypes, down to the six very different accents competing in the Tent over the usual orchestration. It also affected how they edited them. The West Coaster is shown telling Mary she has no idea of what it is to be cold. (Good thing they filmed this in the UK in the height of summer then!) The southern African-American woman was deliberately shown *praying on camera,* and not in an ironic or amusing way, before putting her bake in the oven. The Jewish one made rugelach and then, despite being from Southern Virginia, talked in a slightly New York infected accent about the Traditional Jewish Christmas (ie Chinese food and a movie.)

The religious bits might not seem like something worth pointing out, but it stands at great contrast to how the Bake Off production films its own people. In Series 6 (which just finished running on the BBC, and hasn’t made it to PBS yet, though I expect it will turn up in the spring as The Great British Baking Show Season 3), one of the contestants, Nadiya, is clearly Muslim. Her last name is Hussain. She wears a hijab. She talks about her flavors being rooted in her heritage and her visits to Bangladesh. And yet, that is treated exactly the same as, say, Beca Lyne-Pirkis, from Series 4 (that would be GBBS Season 2, for the PBS watchers) who was inspired by her Welsh heritage in many of her bakes. Nadiya’s religion never comes up. It’s not important, because to the production, she’s just another UK mum of three. She’s not a cast stereotype like the African-American church goer, or the American Jew. In this sense, the show would have done better to bring in Americans to cast their own people, since they would not see them as foreign stereotypes. They also would have done better to film it at home on our shores so the contestants could reasonably be sent home every week. Just because the Tent is pitched in an English Country Manor garden does not make one’s show an automatic hit.

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5 thoughts

  1. Spot on commentary. It is as though ABC hired the British producers but decided to to it on the cheap in Britain instead of committing to the show. And much as I dislike Chris Kimball, he would be an interesting choice for second judge along Mary Berry, with his fussy precision and Tucker Carlson bow tie. And if they wanted two comedians who are used to working with each other the dream casting would be Amy P and Tina F.
    If they wanted an American setting, accessible at least to American east coasters and a great back drop I would suggest the Biltmore in Asheville North Carolina.

    I was handicapped in my watching by our ABC provider having turned on the voice over narration for the visually impaired. The contrast in the two narrators was jarring.

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    1. Forgot to say, the holiday theme was just too much superstructure tie-in. Just have a regular Bake-off.
      (Apparently other companies cannot use bakeoff in USA due to Pillsbury being dog-in-the-manger about the term)

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    2. If they really wanted to shake things up in the judging dept and have no deference to Mary Berry, as even Paul Hollywood does, cast Martha Stewart as the second judge. Mary and Martha even as an old fashion ring to it. That pair would have the bakers quaking and maybe provide some sparks.

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    3. Chris Kimball is an interesting choice, and one that would probably provide good counterpoint to Mary.

      I was completely surprised they filmed this in the UK. Wtf? I like that the contestants go home during the week, practice and work out ideas, and bring in ingredients or gadgets from home. Also, I am guessing it would be difficult for an American to cook in a UK kitchen – the ovens etc aren’t in F, ingredients are different in the two countries so even doing a tried-and-true recipe could come out different.

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  2. You may need to check your facts a bit more. One of the contestants was from Northern Virginia and not Southern Virginia. Also, she did not have a New York accent – having been born in Virginia.

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