Another season of The Great British Baking Show has come to an end, and by all accounts, it was a subpar one, marred by a compressed filming schedule in order to keep all the contestants in a COVID bubble, plus record heat, unfair judging, and the continued presence of Paul Hollywood. I wouldn’t know any of this firsthand, though; I stopped watching GBBS after Series 7 (Season 4 in the U.S.), otherwise known as the Great Changeover when the show moved from the BBC to Channel 4 and lost three-quarters of its permanent cast. For me, the Baking Show would not be the Baking Show without my beloved Mary, Sue, and Mel, and if I couldn’t watch it with them, I wouldn’t watch it at all.
The problem with giving things up on principle is that those things still go on without you and nobody cares that you’re not watching. I’ve heard that the more recent seasons of the show have had their share of delightful moments, that Noel and Sandi were lovely, and that Matt isn’t too bad. But Paul is still there and he is still Paul. I miss GBBS, though, and how sweet and fun it was and how wonderfully kind everyone was to one another. I have gone back and rewatched parts of my two favorite seasons (Series 5, won by Nancy, and Series 6, by Nadiya), but it’s not quite the same.
Last weekend, though, I was alerted to the existence of a fine substitute via this tweet from the TV critic Mo Ryan:
Ryan recommends The Great Canadian Baking Show as an antidote to the sour taste left by the current iteration of GBBS. “Can you beat Canadian kindness in a tent + inventive tarts?” she writes. Well, can you? Especially with Dan Levy of Schitt’s Creek as co-host of Seasons 1 and 2?
GCBS has been on the air since 2017 and is just about to start its fourth season. I cued up Season 1, Episode 1. The opening credits are a dead-ringer for the British version, theme music and all, except that there are Nanaimo bars and butter tarts and blueberries in place of the Victoria sponge. I watched on and discovered that Ryan was absolutely correct. GCBS is full of Canadian kindness, plus a lot of apologizing and unselfconscious use of “eh?” The contestants are amateur bakers from all walks of life and all parts of the southern
provinces half of Canada, and they all seem like nice and talented people who are happy to be there. They cheer one another on and help each other out—even in a challenge that will decide who gets to go to the finals. The two judges, Rochelle Adonis and Bruno Feldeisen, are fair and encouraging without deliberately trying to intimidate and freak out the bakers; they refrain from Hollywood handshake-style nonsense. Levy and his co-host Julia Chan, both longtime fans of the British show, provide comic relief and emotional support, plus some ridiculous puns. (And no, they can’t control their glee when they get to say, “On your mark, get set, bake!” Would you?)
GCBS provides the same sort of comfort as the old-school GBBS: warmth, kindness, humor, and beautiful baked goods. But what struck me as I watched was how much of an effort it made to represent the diversity of Canada and its food, which is far more than a monolith of maple syrup and poutine. GBBS has diversity, too, but that burden is carried by the contestants, who vary from season to season and, of course, get eliminated one by one. In GCBS, however, we have judges who speak each of Canada’s primary languages: Feldeisen is the Francophone, Adonis the Anglophone. Our hosts are a Jewish man from Toronto and an Englishwoman whose father is from Hong Kong and whose mother is from Canada. The diversity is—pardon the pun—baked in. When we get to, say, French Patisserie Week, Feldeisen clearly knows his shit when he describes a perfect opera cake or croquembouche, and during Best of Britain Week, Australian-Canadian Adonis enumerates with great authority the challenges inherent in making brandy snaps.
(The brandy snap technical challenge, incidentally, led to one of my favorite exchanges of the season. Levy asks contestant James, who grew up in the UK, if brandy snaps represent the best or the worst of Britain. Replies James, “This is why I left, actually.”)
The most touching moment for me, however, came during Holiday Week. The signature bake and the showstopper were a buche de Noel and a gingerbread house, respectively, both typical of Christmas. In the middle, however, was a technical challenge that required the bakers to produce a plateful of rugelach, the crescent-shaped pastries that are eaten at Hanukkah.
I didn’t realize how accustomed I’d become to the expectation that when a mainstream TV program talks about “the holidays,” it means Christmas. This doesn’t offend me. I realize that Jews are a teeny-tiny minority, both in the U.S. and in Canada, and it was also drilled into me at Hebrew school that Hanukkah is a relatively unimportant festival that only started to get attention when assimilated Jews started using it as an excuse to give one another other presents in December. Our big celebrations were back in the fall. I appreciate the lights and colors of Christmas and the movies and some of the songs (many of which, I feel obligated to point out, were written by Jews), but I’ve never been an active participant. I have never built a gingerbread house or had my own Christmas tree—though I once shared one with roommates. And again, that is totally fine. I live in America. This is how things are here.
Still, my heart swelled a little when Levy and Chan announced the rugelach challenge. And I have to admit, I felt slightly pleased when none of the contestants seemed to know what rugelach are, because that’s how I feel a lot of the time when people talk about various Christmas foods and customs. (I also felt sad for Corey from Toronto, who was shown in his little bio clip wearing a yarmulke and having a Shabbat dinner with his partner. If only he had survived Dessert Week!) It was such a little thing, but it was nice to see an acknowledgement that Christmas is not the only holiday—and on a mainstream TV program that is not South Park or a Hallmark movie that features the one single, solitary Jew in a small, snowy town explaining Hanukkah to his neighbors and/or non-Jewish love interest before being swept up in the spirit of Christmas.
In an essay in Salon about the most recent season of GBBS (spoilers ahoy!), Melanie McFarland argues that the semifinal elimination of two-time star baker Hermine, who was having a bad week, in favor of Laura, a less skilled baker who was having a slightly better week, was symptomatic of a general trend in both the U.S. and Britain: “Both the United States and Britain are currently being run by mediocre, unqualified men and women who failed upward despite their lack of qualifications.” This was followed by an anecdote about the comedian Hasan Minhaj, who said in an interview last year, “in show business, there’s this whole movement of approachable white dudes whereas with, like, men of color, it’s like Idris Elba, Henry Golding, Zayn Malik, or you work in IT. There’s no middle.” Minhaj, in other words, has to be hot. Dax Shepard does not. McFarland’s point, unspoken but clearly conveyed, is that Hermine, like many other people of color, had less opportunity for mediocrity than Laura, who is white. “Instead of helping us to entirely forget the woes pricking at us for a time,” McFarland concludes, “it ended up throwing them into sharp relief.”
It’s entirely possible that McFarland is reading too much into this controversy. (It is, after all, one of the jobs of TV critics to examine how TV reflects our culture.) Paul and Prue and the producers have claimed that the rules of GBBS have always been that every baker is judged by his or her performance in that particular week. Hermine happened to have had a terrible week. Therefore, Hermine had to leave the tent. And Hermine herself posted a gracious note on social media about how she’d had a wonderful time on the show and had no hard feelings toward anyone.
Still, this is what we mean when we talk about diversity: Who gets to decide how many December celebrations will be represented on Holiday Week? Who gets to give a starring role or comedy special to a man of color even if he has a pot belly? Part of the appeal of GBBS is that it represents a better, kinder, and more just world than the one we live in, where our competitors will help us, where the only thing that matters is the quality of our pastry, and where mediocrity will not skate through just because of the package it’s wrapped in. The pleasure for me, in watching the Canadian version of the show, is that it has very consciously made good on that promise. There’s room for everybody in the tent, both at the baking stations and behind the judges’ table. For the past four years, Canadians have been telling us that things are not as great on the north side of the border as we Americans think it is. Well then, they shouldn’t have improved on the Baking Show, should they?