What ‘Great British Baking Show’ can teach presidential debates


There are two important contests going on right now on television. One is a presidential election. The other is “The Great British Baking Show,” whose 11th season (“collection eight” by Netflix dating) began airing here last week. Given the anxiety created by the former and the relief with which fans have greeted the latter, what might our electoral process learn from a show about bread and buns and biscuits?

Both have known challenges. Just as we find ourselves crawling toward the possible end of American democracy, “Baking Show” found itself at a similar crossroads, when, in 2017, it moved from taxpayer-supported BBC to the commercial Channel 4, losing judge Mary Berry and hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc in the process. (Only judge Paul Hollywood remained.) Fans feared that the revised show, which brought in Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig in as comperes and Prue Leith to replace the beloved Berry, would forfeit its soul, its meditative pacing, its bittersweet character and independent spirit in an ad-supported environment.

American versions of the show would have supported that fear: Running shorter to make room for commercials, cut to the more aggressive rhythms of reality television, they miss what in fact makes the original so popular here. It doesn’t help that, where the British series awards nothing but honor, the Americans dangle money, which, as the song says, changes everything.

But the series survived the move because the institution is strong, the format solid — it still lasts a leisurely hour — and because the world it posits, one not of competition but camaraderie, is one most of us would want to live in. (And because the contestants remain the real show, the change in judges and hosts has had no significant effect; Matt Lucas, who has replaced Toksvig, is doing fine.) It’s no accident that in the new season’s opening episode we see bakers who have finished a difficult assignment ahead of the bell — making recognizable portrait busts of famous people out of cake and icing — offering help to struggling stragglers; viewers come for that. Of course, “The Great British Baking Show” is a created world, set in a tent in a park, where the producers set the rules and judges judge. But that is not so different from a constitution and courts, if you remember how those are supposed to work in an honest society.

The media wants politicians to be performers, and rates them accordingly. “The Great British Baking Show” invites you to consider every baker as an individual, applying personal solutions idiosyncratically to the problem of deliciousness. They are young and old, Black and white and Asian, gay and straight, students, workers and homemakers. It gives you time to see them under pressure, and also just to see them, in a way that encourages empathy more than judgment; they have their good days and their bad days, and remain philosophical. Every elimination feels like a loss.

There is none of the polarization that describes our modern political discourse, no ideology beyond, say, one contestant’s belief that marzipan is better with pistachio than almond. We learn a little about who the bakers are at home, but not whether they voted “leave” or “remain,” or think Boris Johnson is a total clown or just mostly one. There are no tactics, only the application of technique and taste, the mix of innovation and tradition. You cannot strategize your way to winning; being named “star baker” in one episode gives you no advantage in the next. You can’t bluff your way through, saying your soufflé has not fallen when everyone can see it has. “Fake news” has no power here.

The contestants of this year's "Great British Baking Show."

The contestants of this year’s “Great British Baking Show.”

(Mark Bourdillon )

There is no room for boasting or self-promotion; if anything, self-deprecation is the order of the day, in doses low enough to remain lovable. (A signature moment is when the bakers are shown regarding their creations with quiet, sad skepticism.) When one baker knocked into another baker’s tray of pineapple upside-down cakes during the season opener, she felt so miserable she could not enjoy coming in first in the challenge. “Accidents happen,” said the baker whose cakes went flying.

It is true that the good example the series sets has not exactly brought about the millennium. (It does feel time for another one of those, already). Nativism is on the rise. Politesse is M.I.A. But that is no reason not to press on toward the many-flavored peaceable kingdom where the Jamaican Spiced Tea Cake lies down with the Middle Eastern Delight Sandwich Biscuit.

With the American election entering its debate phase, I would like to propose an alternative to the usual business — antagonistic, frustrating, inequitable and rarely productive of enlightening answers — modeled on “The Great British Baking Show”: a “signature” challenge in which the candidates offer an approach to a social, geopolitical or scientific issue close to their heart, assuming they have one; a “technical” challenge (something to do with checks and balances, haven’t worked it out); and the “showstopper,” where each must bring a hypothetical crisis to a reasonable conclusion. (Dropping bombs is not allowed.)

There will be no wandering away from the question to repeat some campaign boilerplate, no ad hominem attacks, no skulking. Points will be deducted for not sticking to the assignment, which is to say, for not listening. (Knowing how to listen is presidential.) Candidates will be judged on neatness, originality and lack of collateral damage, not by politicians or pundits but historians — say, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Mary Frances Berry, which also gets you a nice “Baking Show” resonance. You could even use Fielding and Lucas as hosts for an outside, theoretically nonpartisan view. And comic relief. But there are a lot of ways to go with that.

And if the candidates proved even half as generous as the bakers, it might leave you feeling hopeful for the world, not just good about your candidate.

It should be broadcast from a tent, in a park. Surrounded by sheep (the woolly, not the human kind), with maybe a little bird song in the breaks. And if they can bake a cake, that would be nice too, and not be the worst way to judge them.

‘The Great British Baking Show’

Where: Netflix

When: Any time

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

‘The Presidential Debate’

Where: Various channels

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday



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