A few years ago, I followed Val Stones from Series 7 of The Great British Bake Off on Instagram. When she followed back and commented that one of my bakes looked delicious, it was one of the biggest thrills of my life. All day I texted the screenshot of a fairly innocuous comment from a sixty-something-year-old English woman to friends who watched the show and friends who didn’t. Their responses ranged from exhilarated to baffled but generally supportive based on whether or not they were canonists of the tent. But receiving an outsized portion of joy from a very small moment is the gospel of Bake Off. It’s a show about the fairly innocuous process of turning flour into food, but like the mysterious and magical undertaking of really good baking, which turns flour into the sublime, Bake Off is able to extract nearly the entire spectrum of human emotion out of almost nothing and inveigle those emotions from its audience in a way that is familiar, sweet, and ultimately inconsequential, a confection in and of itself.
I always miss Bake Off in the offseason. But I didn’t realize exactly how much I’d missed it this year until that first glimpse of the giant white tent through a break in the glade, its secreted innards housing candy-colored kitchenware spurring nostalgia for a kitchen I’ve never actually stepped foot in. With the premiere of Series 11 (or Season 8, depending on whether you count correctly or incorrectly), the pastoral string instruments of the theme music announced a tiny return to something that felt like normalcy.
Paul Hollywood, who I both love and hate for his shellacked hair and smug orange grimace, promised we would “get back to something very familiar,” and we did, two seconds later. His co-host Prue Leith immedately both repeated and corrected what Paul had just said, just like she always does: “It really is exciting, and familiar, comforting, lovely.”
While the inside of the tent recalls an artificial, peaceful 1950s that never existed, 2020 has come for the Bake Off. This year, the contestants are sequestered for the seven-week filming instead of taking the train back to Bournemouth, or Hartlepool, or some other town that sounds to Americans like Agatha Christie. Other than that, the cast of characters is exactly the same as it is any other year. For the Howard Middleton ride-or-dies, like myself, there is Rowan, who crafts a deft Marie Antoinette out of sponge and brought a homemade guillotine to hack a cake to his exact Battenberg specifications. There is the probably-too-cool to be there Lottie, who “lives in Middlehampton and unwinds from her job as a pantomime producer by listening to Viking metal while baking and doing yoga,” for Candace Brown die-hards (also me). And the nearly-too-young-to-be-there Peter for everyone who checks in on Liam Charles regularly (me again), along with the whole roster of other deeply pleasant people looking to try their hardest and feel quite proud of themselves no matter the outcome of their bakes.
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Episode one also gives us our first gasp-out-loud moment of Burkian sublime terror when Sura innocently knocks over Dave’s already imperfect tray of pineapple upside-down cakes in an attempt to shoo a fly away from her own. And though she can feel no joy in her technical challenge victory after perceiving herself as endangering Dave’s chances of winning, there is ultimately no harm. Dave declares that accidents happen as Noel assures Sura that everything will come out all right. And it does! Unlike so many things that are decidedly turning out a real fucking mess outside the safety of that tent.
Even newcomer Matt Lucas, who seemed just as strange a choice for Bake Off host as Noel Fielding did years ago, has come out just fine. His addition to the cast reintroduced a rat-tat-tat between the hosts that was sadly missing between Noel and Sandy, who just couldn’t seem to get in sync. Though they lack Sue and Mel’s food knowledge, Noel and Matt seem to revive their silliness and easiness with the contestants, which gives the comforting feeling that acquaintances inside the tent simply make the audience privy to friendships so old they’ve achieved the comfort of a well-worn cardigan.
Early in the episode, Matt mentions that he is gay to Samaritan’s volunteer Laura, a person he has just met.
“You’re a homosexual? I never knew that” she answers politely, as though speaking to a neighbor who has popped in to borrow sugar in the middle of her bake, before turning her attention back to her raspberry ripple.
Bake Off’s only response to the very real terrors of the world closing in on the protection of the tent is the show’s signature brand of aggressive kindness and the sense that things will probably turn out fine even if they are momentarily terrible, a fiction that, like the 1950s suburbia-core, is nice to pretend to believe if only for a little while. Battenbergs overflow their tins, pineapple cakes topple, Freddie Mercury’s lumpy cake head won’t stay attached to his lumpy cake body. These are hold-your-breath disasters that ultimately mean nothing at all, decadently sublime.
In the end, the results are predictable. One contestant goes home for using ingredients that taste like too much, a cardinal sin on Bake Off, and for the first time, I was glad Mary Berry isn’t around to judge. Because the very idea of Loriea’s scotch bonnet chili powder may have killed her, though she would have died smiling politely. And even though she lost, Loriea did not leave before assuring us that she was glad she came and felt very proud, just like the loser always does on Bake Off, while the winner declares that he or she cannot believe it and would not confess to feeling any emotion beyond a bit chuffed even under threat of perjury. No one feels too happy, and no one feels too sad, but everyone feels satisfied no matter what. It’s perfect.
There might be an argument to be made that the carefully parsed kindness of The Great British Bake Off is a sort of calculated treacle totally out of step with the headlines we are currently living. However, I’m too fatigued by the ordinary horrors of life outside the tent to make any case against a one-hour-a-week escape into the sweetly stressful sublime.