Are you watching "The Great British Bake Off" each week? If not, you are missing the "Downton Abbey" of cooking. It has everything required of a plummy British drama -- words you can't understand, strange humor (whoops, humour), odd obsessions and a near-psychotic attention to detail: "Can you believe it? They used curtains from 1914 when that event took place in 1912! I've written them a stern note!"
If you haven't caught it yet, each season 12 amateur bakers compete to become "Star Baker." Each week, one contestant is voted out of the competition by the two cookbook-writing judges who act as if it is the most painful thing they have ever done in their entire lives, and they are so teddibly, awfully sorry to have to tell the unfortunate contestant whose dough didn't rise (whoops -- proof) long enough that he or she won't be returning to the baking tent next week. Ta-ta, do stay in touch.
At the end of the season, one of the final three bakers is proclaimed the winner. There is nothing so declasse as prize money; winning is an honor. (Whoops! Honour.) How veddy British.
If Americans ran the show, there would be a million-dollar prize and the contestants would be encouraged to sabotage one another's pastries and the judges would be shock jocks and D-list celebrities. The week's losing baker would be dropped through a hole in the floor into a vat of hot rancid butter and made to swim for his life while a studio audience shouted insults at him.
The British hosts, judges and contestants could not be sweeter. When the judges don't like something, there is no yelling or screaming; just an offer of the kindest, most constructive criticism possible: "Your crust did not bake through, but the flavors (whoops -- flavours) are wonderful!"
When contestants are told they've been eliminated, they invariably say how much fun they've had and how much they loved the experience. Sure, some of them shed a tear, but they are not out seeking revenge on the judges or jealous of their competitors. It shows better sportsmanship than you'd see from highly paid and highly sponsored athletes.
So why is this wildly mild show such a hit? It is the opposite of "Monday Night Football" and "Big Brother" and "The Housewives of Who Cares?" and a hundred other "reality" shows. Can you imagine seeing one of the Beverly Hills housewives trying to bake a cake? Can you picture a Kardashian in the kitchen? That might be kind of funny, but not in a good way.
As someone who bakes pies in store-bought crusts and makes birthday cakes from a mix, I'm shocked by the fantastic concoctions of the "Bake Off" contestants. Amateur bakers make three-tiered cakes, each tier a different kind of cake and decorated to within an inch of its life in, oh, three hours. Why don't I have friends and neighbors who can do this? There's no way these bakers are eating these things all by themselves. Come on, neighbors, it's time to step up your game. And, by the way, your piping could have been better. I'm talking to you, Bruce!
"Bake Off" works because these are amateurs, not professionals. Baking is obviously how these people relax. It is not work for them; it is fun. It is their hobby, and all hobbies are weird to people who don't share them. People who don't golf have little interest in it and wonder why anyone would enjoy such a stupid pastime. But golfers don't care; they think you're missing something. If you collect model trains or baby dolls or barbed wire, people who don't will think you are strange. You can almost hear them thinking, "Why do they waste their time collecting Roseville Pottery when they could be collecting salt shakers like I do?"
But what we should probably be thinking is, "His hobby is keeping him out of trouble. I wish more people had one."