[personal profile] rj_anderson
Having now binge-watched all seven seasons of The Great British Bake-Off, S2 and S3 of the Australian, 1x01 and 02 of the Irish, most of the Great Holiday / American Baking Show and half of S1 of the South African, I feel somewhat qualified to rank the various English-speaking versions and make some observations about which ones are definitely worth watching, which are just OK, and which ones you might as well give a miss.

First, though, I want to talk about what makes the original Bake-Off and its derivatives special in the first place. After all, there are a vast number of cooking shows and competitions on TV already, and those who haven't seen a Bake-Off show can easily be forgiven for assuming that they're much like Masterchef or Iron Chef or Chopped or what-have-you, with sweating contestants striving to impress a panel of unforgiving judges, a few dollops of contrived drama and cut-throat competition to hype it up and a big cash prize at the end of it. In short, like most "reality" TV shows.

That is not Bake-Off, bless its earnest little soul. Bake-Off is about a group of men and women (all citizens of the same country, but deliberately diverse in age, ethnicity, occupation, and social background) who just really love baking, really want to do it well, and best of all, are ordinary, decent people who genuinely like one another. They've had time to bond before the competition even starts, they know and admire what their fellow bakers can do, and they aren't "out to get" anybody -- indeed, they aren't out to get anything except a nicely engraved cake stand and being named one of the top amateur bakers in their country.

What I like about watching Bake-Off shows is how varied and individual the styles (not to mention personalities) of the various bakers are, the fascinating differences in technique and ingredients from country to country, and all the things that can go wrong even if you're scrupulously following the recipe. Some viewers like to bake along with the contestants, trying to stretch their skills; that seems like way too much work to me, but I have certainly learned a lot, and gained confidence about baking things that formerly scared me (like yeasted bread).

It's surprising how such a low-drama show, where most of the big ticking-clock moments involve people staring into ovens or trying to pry out a cake that's stuck to the pan, can be more emotionally compelling than an episode of Survivor or The Amazing Race. Partly because the contestants are so likeable and therefore it's sad to see any of them fail (as opposed to other reality competitions where my reaction is often a shrug or a silent "good riddance"), but also because for me, it's a lot easier to identify and empathize with the sorrows of burning the caramel sauce or having a soufflé fall flat than the harrowing tests of endurance, or the desperate striving after fame and fortune, that drive a lot of other reality shows.

Also, it's fun to try and guess which of the contestants will be chosen Star Baker for that week and which one(s) will be sent home, even if it's really not that hard to tell 95% of the time.

Anyway, here's my personal ranking of the various Bake-Off shows I've watched so far:

Australian, Season 1: Unwatchable dreck. A near-total abandonment of the parent show's gentle charm in favor of a crass and wholly misguided attempt at making it more exciting (cue the stock footage of bikini-clad girls, blaring rock music, etc.). Harsh and unpleasant judges, obnoxious hosts -- the contestants seemed fine enough, but I couldn't even get through the first episode, let alone the rest of the season. Definitely not recommended.

Holiday / American: It isn't exactly the show's fault that Pillsbury has the term "Bake-Off" trademarked in North America and therefore this spin-off had to call itself "Baking Show" instead, but it sure doesn't help it feel like it belongs in the same family as the other spin-offs. Indeed, it's more like a distant and kind of annoying cousin. Married couple hosts Nia Vardalos and Ian Gomez try their best to be funny, but mostly just come across as cheesy and not very bright. Bringing in veteran GBBO judge Mary Berry lends a bit of fish-out-of-water charm to the judging when she doesn't recognize an American term or recipe, but her gently dignified presence just serves to underline the show's other flaws -- an unnecessary obsession with holiday-themed baking, over-the-top glitter decorations everywhere, and contestants who often seem more like caricatures. Watchable, but only just.

Irish: Unlike the previous two, it doesn't err on the side of being brash. Instead it settles for bland and mediocre. There's nothing memorable about its lone, somewhat bored-seeming female host, either of the judges, or the baking challenges set for the contestants. Little humour, no charm, and a bargain-basement air to the whole production makes this series (at least in its first season, I don't know about the other two) strictly for completists. If you're a newcomer to the Bake-Off concept, best not to start here.

South African: Now we're getting somewhere. The hosts fall just a bit shy of loveable (Donovan Goliath almost seems like he doesn't want to be there, and in the early eps frequently isn't), and they lack the chemistry of their better counterparts, but they've at least got a touch of the true Bake-Off spirit to their banter. Judge Tjaart Walraven's enthusiasm for great flavours helps compensate for the somewhat drab, humorless and grudging style of his counterpart Shirley Guy, and the contestants -- while not always as skilled as I've come to expect -- are extraordinarily diverse even by GBBO standards. Not to mention the bonus points this show gets for having the most "common" ingredients I've never heard of and have to look up (often without a clue as to how to spell them). I haven't finished S1 yet, but I can't see any reason not to.

British: The original, the classic, and certainly the best one to start with if you're not sure Bake-Off is for you. Hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins are not only popular UK comediennes but also lifelong best friends, and it shows; male judge Paul Hollywood is famously pompous and a bit of a jerk, but the genteel class of his counterpart Mary Berry takes the sting out of his harsher comments and you can always count on Mel and Sue to take a poke at Paul's ego at least once an episode (as well as tease Mary about her infamous love of liqueurs). Memorable and frequently delightful contestants, plenty of tough challenges, and -- unique to GBBO's early seasons -- charming mini-documentaries about the history and origin of various classic British foods make this must-see viewing. Plus, seven years of great baking in the legendary white tent, what's not to love? It was a tough call not to declare this my #1, but in the end my love is just a little bit greater for...

Australian, S2 and onward: After the inauspicious (to say the least) start of S1, it's a miracle this show could make a comeback of any kind, let alone a great one. But it did. New judges, new hosts, a new baking location (a cozy-looking, attractively decorated shed that outshines even the famous GBBO tent for "place I would most like to bake") and a totally new approach to cinematography gave the show a depth, warmth, and sense of genuine, unfussy heart that makes a first-class advertisement for Australia. Hosts Mel Buttle and Claire Hooper have a similar wry and goofy charm to the original Mel and Sue, judges Maggie Beer and Matt Moran are both fair-minded and good-natured, and the wardrobe director for the show deserves a special medal (seriously, I want ALL of Maggie's jewelry and clothes plus most of Mel and Claire's). I love how different the show is from its British counterpart in all the ways that make it interesting, while also being similar in all the ways that matter. If I hadn't seen the original GBBO first this show wouldn't have the same impact by comparison, so it really ought to be #2... but I love GABO too much to do anything but declare it at least a tie.

* * *

There is much more that could be said, especially about my favorite contestants and bakes over the seasons, but I wouldn't want to spoil the fun for those who have yet to watch and enjoy the delights of Custardgate, Selasi's unflappable cool, or the Amazing Bread Lion for themselves. (I can totally be induced to burble about those things in comments, though, if you're a fellow fan.)
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