Archive for the great british bake-off

Baking The Waves

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, Touring TV, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on December 14, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s not an unreasonable assumption that Americans prefer to know about Britain’s heritage than the way it is today. So it will come as no surprise to anyone on either side of the Atlantic that a Great British Bake-Off spin-off (which can be contracted to The Great British Bake-Off) called The Great Holiday Baking Show is airing on ABC primetime over the Christmas season. The Great British Bake-Off is a cooking competition celebrating British culinary traditions against a landscape idealizing Britain as the green and pleasant land of yore replete with signifiers of our imperial past, like the bunting-lined parties we used to host for wartime victories and royal events. Though if you’re labouring under the misapprehension that cultural fascination has triumphed over commercial interest, it’s worth remembering that in the UK this year the finale of The Great British Bake-Off was the most-watched program of the year, that past seasons of the show currently occupy peak Sunday airtime on PBS, and that a US version of the format called The American Baking Competition debuted in 2013 but was cancelled within a year following poor ratings. It’s both too lucrative and too particular to attempt anything other than a spin-off.

Bake Britain

Bake Britain

Americanizing the brand has proved difficult. PBS had to re-name the US airings The Great British Baking Show not because of cultural misunderstandings – as surely ‘Bake-Off’ is a term friendlier to the American spirit of competition than ours of miserable make-do – but America’s corporate hegemony. Girth-romanticising pastry company Pilsbury hold the trademark to the name ‘Bake-Off’ since it is the name of their patented annual cooking contest. The American Baking Competition continued the tradition of American reboots of British reality shows exporting celebrity judges, but it backed the wrong horse. Perhaps they were expecting some latent movie star glamour to suddenly burst forth from baker Paul Hollywood when he was brought into geographical proximity with his namesake – or more likely they wanted another British villain – but there was less gel than the sour scouse keeps in his hair when they brought him into the show. Though far sweeter and lacking the negativity that reality TV bottom-feeds off, The Great Holiday Baking Show has made a far better choice in calling upon veteran food writer and TV presenter Mary Berry to handle the judging, especially since any successful translation of the format requires as much exploitation of British icons as possible.

As is usually the case in television, the biggest factor affecting the success of The Great Holiday Baking Show is time. The Great British Bake-Off is shown over ten weeks and, while it is clear from the preponderance of sunlight and the frequently-used excuse of it being a ‘hot day’ that it is filmed in Summer, the baking is not linked to any particular season of the year. As the title states, The Great Holiday Baking Show is very clearly themed around the American Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays to reflect the period of the calendar year in which most baking is done and/or consumed in the US. The producers have evidently latched on to the seasonality of baking as justification for a short-run December-long series which also conveniently prevents them from having to commit to a full season in programming terms. Conversely, the configuration of cake-eating with sunny countryside settings in the British original has almost made it seem like an exclusively Summer activity in the UK, not a happy by-product of taking refuge from the cold of Autumn and Winter as it is in the US. Finding what is culturally equivalent about an imported show is often the key.

Baking in the Free World!

Baking in the Free World!

The subject matter and presentation of The Great British Bake-Off is twee and backwards but it gestures to the diversity of post-colonial Britain. Though by no means proportional, there is a range of ethnic, racial, sexual and regional representation in the contestant base. To wit, the 2015 winner was Nadiya Jamir Hussein, a British-Bengali women identifying as a Muslim. I’m glad to see that The Great Holiday Baking Show has followed in these footsteps, though in both cases it’s difficult to tell whether this is selection strategy or merely that it’s an inclusive enough application process for minorities to make it through. What makes the difference is the ability to use the original format and continue to have Mary Berry on board, although why they would make her a judge for an American spin-off only to patronise her like a cigar store Indian in a parallel universe is beyond me.

 

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Dog Shows and Cat Boxes

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV Criticism, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2014 by Tom Steward

I begin with a broadcasting history anecdote but bear with me. In Britain in the late ‘80s, a debate was held on what constituted quality television ahead of a broadcasting White Paper proposing the introduction of television outside public service regulation in the form of a satellite service to the UK. Unsurprisingly given what would go on to happen with Downton Abbey, business won over art and the agreed-upon definition of British quality television was pseudo-literary period drama with an easily exportable ideal of British national identity based on our imperial past. But during the debate, a definition of quality television offered by scholar Geoff Mulgan was ‘usable stories’, an idea consonant with broadcasting that television should tell its viewers something that could help them personally or collectively in their society. This understanding of quality in television has always stuck with me and it’s come to mind recently as a way of defending several American TV programmes I’ve been watching that are otherwise badly made, poorly written and artlessly executed. But is that justification enough?

Dog Daytime TV

Dog Daytime TV

I’m a dog-owner and I used to be a cat-owner. Hence I’ve been watching a lot of Nat Geo Wild’s The Dog Whisperer and Animal Planet’s cartoon riposte My Cat from Hell. Both shows tackle the same premise but are – quite literally – very different animals. In each, pet-owners call in behavioural specialists or PWCs (Psychologists Without Credentials) for their animal, Cesar Millan for the dogs and (apparently on return from the 23rd Century) Jackson Galaxy for the cats. The pets in question are usually engaging in dysfunctional behaviour, although the sub-Scooby Doo twist is always that it’s the owners who are really screwed up. Cesar controls the dogs by making them more obedient, calm and submissive and Jackson makes the cats easier to live with by compelling owners to hand over the entirety of their house to their new feline landlords. Different strokes for different pets. Both programmes are shoddily constructed, replete with ham-fisted set-ups, and full of duplication, laboriously eeking out a handful of choice moments into an hour of blink-and-you’ll-never-miss-it television.

That said, there’s more here that’s relevant to my daily life than in all the shows I’ve ever feted as quality TV. And I’m not just speaking selfishly. I’m a better citizen because of these shows, and with the possible exception of The Wire there’s not many ‘quality’ programmes you can say that about. My dog (by marriage) A is by no means a handful but nor is he entirely obedient, and sometimes he has to be because he’s a big boy and a breed that ignorant people (and that’s large sections of the public) mistakenly think of as a vicious dog and so there’s less chance any harm will come to him if he’s never out of our control. Thanks to The Dog Whisperer, I know that I can subdue A in any situation by calming myself first and that dogs need to respect as well as love you before they obey. Thanks to My Cat from Hell, I know that if I get a cat, I should just hand them the house keys.

Marriage Boot Camp is a truly awful TV show by anyone’s reckoning. Everyone involved is a horrid caricature (self-made or portrayed) of their social type and their relationships ugly distortions of what marriage is really like. The format and its ‘exercises’ (we should say games) don’t help anyone, and the whole debacle is thickly lacquered in anesthetized self-help dross. G and I recently celebrated our first wedding anniversary and we’re both ecstatic about each other and the institution. So whereas once I would see Marriage Boot Camp as a simple lie perpetuated by a periodically lazy medium, I now see it as a cautionary fable of what happens when married couples become grotesque circus-mirrors of loving unions. It’s the same old shit but my relationship to it has changed. Perversely, the show may even help our marriage, not because of the guidance it offers but because I now have a high-definition image in my mind of what a bad marriage looks like and I refuse to ever let myself resemble one single pixel of it.

Balls and Chains!

Balls and Chains!

I never thought I was that concerned with the use-value of the TV shows I watched. Then I think how little British TV I now watch compared to when I lived in Britain. Sure, it’s harder to get British programmes here and much easier just to go with the flow (50 television academics just telepathically high-fived!) but frankly it’s very possible these days and the shows themselves are no less for me being here. It’s only because they don’t seem relevant to my life as it is now that I don’t watch them as regularly. Most of the British shows I’ve lost in translation are the ones I used to sync myself to the national calendar. You can tell that from the titles: The Great British Menu, The Great British Bake-Off, Coronation Street. What remains is everything I watch for content and style (Doctor Who, The Fall, Peep Show) not because they speak to me in my immediate surroundings. I don’t think I’ll ever completely confuse useful programming with good TV, but it’s tempting sometimes.

 

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