Let Them Bake Cake

Why “The Great British Bake Off” Didn’t Translate Into American.

Not for lack of trying.

The most popular television program in the United Kingdom last year was an amateur baking competition, in which the contestants show off their technical skills and creativity with puddings and pastries. “The Great British Bake Off” is a BBC show that PBS began carrying in 2015 under the title “The Great British Baking Show,” and American viewers can’t seem to get enough. In a tent on the lawn of an English manor, Celebrity chef Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, England’s grande dame of cookbooks, judge the creations; they are as withering as it’s possible to be about rosewater and Victoria sponge. But “American Idol” for cakes this is not. Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, a well-known comedy duo (“Mel and Sue”), leaven the proceedings with color commentary and light innuendo. There are no villains or alliances; the bakers help one another race against the clock. The worst thing to happen on the show was the tossing of a failed Baked Alaska into the trash, in an event now known as “bingate” or the “#bincident.” The show has been so successful in Britain (the most recent season finale drew fourteen and a half million viewers) that it’s inspired spinoffs in seventeen other countries, from South Africa to Ukraine, with varying levels of success and renewal. Curiously, no American version of the show has ever taken off.

CBS tried in 2013 with “The American Baking Competition,” a show very similar to the original in structure, down to the inclusion of Paul Hollywood. But something about the formula was off. Jeff Foxworthy’s jokes were a little too daddish and soft — the “soggy bottom” joke doesn’t quite land in an American accent — and Hollywood’s dynamic with co-judge Marcela Valladolid, a young Mexican Food Network star, was notably different (it was later revealed that they had an affair). The bakes were slightly less ambitious — one of the technical challenges was to make s’mores. Most significantly, there were stakes. The winner received a prize of a quarter of a million dollars and a cookbook contract with Simon and Schuster, whereas the British version has no prize at all but the glory of being crowned the country’s best amateur baker. In “Bake Off,” the contestants got to go home during the week, to see their families and practice their bakes. But in this version, the contestants were deprived of their families and homes until the competition was over. This ratcheted the pressure and emotions up to an especially high pitch, driving some contestants to tearful thoughts of their children their debts. The show ratings were abysmal and the show was not renewed.

ABC gave it another run in 2015 with a Christmas special called “The Great Holiday Baking Show.” This time, Mary Berry judged with pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, the leather-jacketed bad boy of desserts, and there was no funny business beyond some giggles about Berry’s pronunciation of “tutti frutti.” The producers took great pains to remain so faithful to the British original that they even filmed it all in England, in the same tent using the same ovens with retractable doors (one hopes they were provided a new set of measuring cups). The hosts, married actors Nia Vardalos and Ian Gomez, didn’t quite possess Mel and Sue’s knack for delivering a bad joke and still making it funny. Their commentary was sedate, so their praise came off as a little too kind. Indeed, the most damning thing one can say about “Bake Off” is that it’s sweet TV, the television equivalent of a feel-good Upworthy post that would go viral on Facebook (“This Show About Cakes Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity”). Even the British version came under a fair amount of criticism from viewers who found it tediously nice or evidence of a reversion to “the twee and the gentle.”

It’s not as though desserts are uncharted territory for successful cooking shows in the U.S. — we’ve had “Cake Boss,” “Ace of Cakes,” “DC Cupcakes,” and “Top Chef: Just Desserts.” And it’s not that American bakers are any less technically skilled than the Brits, except perhaps in their French pronunciation (the U.S. version opts for “pastry cream” instead of “creme patissiere” and “choux tower” instead of “croquembouche”). The casting in both versions is conscientiously diverse. But from the tea cakes to the puns, it’s all just very British. One can see how ABC might have hoped for a Christmas show to work, because of the overall animating principle of holiday spirit. The holidays are always a heady mix of nostalgia and traditions wrapped around flour and sugar, but in Britain, the animating spirit is ever thus. Moreover, baking has a strong working-class tradition — Paul Hollywood’s father and grandfather and Mary Berry’s great-great grandfather were all master bakers.

But “Bake Off”’s success has less to do with national identity than with national psyche. The show is a reminder that awfully boring-sounding amateur leisure activities — like knitting or building model trains — can be valuable for a well-balanced spirit. BBC Two is in fact doubling down on “Keep Calm and Carry On” television with somehow even more British-sounding programming like “Great British Garden Revival” and “Great Pottery Throw Down.” But in America, where we talk about lengths in football fields and television ratings in fractions of Super Bowls, our entertainment is oriented more toward competition and celebrity rather than deep pleasure in craft. The Americans on these shows also tended to have a less peaceful relationship with desserts. On CBS, there was a diabetic who couldn’t eat her own treats and not one but two gym rats — a fireman and a sorority sister — who were openly resented by their peers for fattening them up.

The original “Bake Off” captures the quirky, gentle competition of a spelling bee, combines it with the urgency of a cooking show, and adds a pinch of provincialism. But more than that, it’s a show about a hobby, and the status quo, and that is the most British thing of all. In her New Yorker profile of Sharon Horgan, Willa Paskin nails the difference between British and American Television. She’s writing about sitcoms, but the heart of the observation is the same:

U.K. sitcoms tend to be darker than American ones, encouraged by a powerful public broadcasting system whose aim is to serve the varying tastes of taxpayers, not the upbeat preferences of advertisers, and by a national psyche fixated on the immutability of the class system, not on a dream of self-improvement. Americans believe that things will get better. Brits laugh at how things stay the same. To become a hit in the United States, “The Office” not only had to transform the tragic, grating boss into a less tragic, less grating, more well-meaning boss; it had to cast off the message, central to the British original, that work is where you go to waste your life.

To become a hit in the United States, “Bake Off” would have to cast off the message that baking cakes is just a thing to do to pass the time when you’re not wasting your life. The preferred American activity is to watch other people wasting their lives, ideally while they, and possibly we, are wasted. Hence: Vanderpump Rules.