Baking, it’s often said, is like chemistry. You gather the necessary ingredients, you measure, you combine them at the correct times. In theory, a recipe should be endlessly replicable, producing consistent and satisfying results. But anyone who has donned an apron and dusted a work surface knows that closely following a recipe can only take you so far. In the transmutation of liquid and granules into golden-brown delights, there is also an element of magic.
In the instance of The Great British Bake Off—the low-stakes reality television competition to find the UK’s “best amateur baker”—the recipe is simple yet satisfying. Over the course of several weeks, an array of charming, regular people compete in challenges that test their skills in different aspects of baking, from simple loaves of bread to busts of celebrities made of cake. Each episode is divided into three parts. There’s a “signature bake,” where the competitors are expected to bring flair and personality to a basic baking assignment; the “technical challenge,” where the bakers must rely on their skills to follow a recipe with minimal instructions; and the “showstopper,” the final and most impressive challenge of the show, where the bakers often construct elaborate edible structures (which, in turn, sometimes collapse, with thrilling results). The winner of each episode is crowned “Star Baker”; the loser must leave, until only the finalists are left. The ultimate prize? A title, a cake stand, and a bouquet of flowers.
Since the show first aired in 2010, it has not only become one of the UK’s most watched series—attracting, at its height, 14 million viewers—but also inspired a kind of mania among its many fans. The events of each episode are regularly dissected in the British press; one incident involving a baked Alaska that was left out on the counter became a national scandal. There’s even a Great British Bake Off musical. While this level of passion for a reality TV show about baking may seem absurd—and it is—many Britons feel that the show’s humour, gentleness, and the competitors’ strength in the face of culinary adversity reflect the best parts of the national character. But, despite the inherent Britishness of it all, the show has been a global success, and its format has been exported far and wide. Kenya has The Great Kenyan Bake Off, France has Le Meilleur Patissier . . . and we have The Great Canadian Baking Show, which returned to the CBC this fall for a sixth season, slapping flabbily onto the screen like a pile of wet dough.
The Great Canadian Baking Show is one of the broadcaster’s most beloved offerings; its 2016 debut garnered more than a million viewers each week, and the following seasons were among the most streamed shows on CBC Gem. However, while it may have followed the original recipe, there was some point in the process where things went wrong. Like replacing butter with margarine or sugar with stevia: the taste is familiar but the result feels artificial and unsatisfying. As a baking show, it succeeds, delivering a certain amount of comfort and smoothing the rumpled surface of our furrowed brains as a spatula spreads icing. But by affixing the adjectives “great” and “Canadian” to it, it protests too much—and in its attempts to “Canadianize” the formula with butter tarts and excessive kindness, it inadvertently exemplifies some of the worst tendencies in Canadian television and our national character.
To understand what makes the Canadian version so bad, one must first understand what makes The Great British Bake Off . . . great. The first ingredient is the contestants. Their diversity and likeability reflect a kind of aspirational vision of British society: this is what life would be like if everyone baked and were nice to one another! Charming, humble participants of all ages and walks of life are brought together to compete, and unlike in many reality TV shows, there are no villains. Nick is a sixty-year-old bus driver from Wales who loves to bring muffins on his morning route! When he’s not busy collecting stamps or singing in his local choir, Rajit makes biscuits for his two daughters!
Some have argued that the show is the stage upon which modern British identity is being created and contested: old symbols and traditions (the gingham tablecloth, the village green) juxtaposed against a diverse group of bakers who are bringing their own twists to classic recipes. When Nadiya Hussain, who wears a hijab, won in 2015, it felt like a watershed moment for inclusion; the past season, which prominently featured two Europeans who live in Britain, seemed like a commentary on Brexit.
If the British show is a shiny mirror glaze that reflects an idealized version of the country back to itself, the Canadian version is an unfilled choux bun, hollow and insubstantial. Part of this has to do with the fact that baking is not as entwined with the founding myths of our national identity. According to a 2006 readers’ poll conducted by the National Post, Canada’s favourite dessert is the Nanaimo bar, a dish that was popularized only in the 1970s and is prepared without baking at all. Early episodes of Bake Off dug into the historical origins of particular treats, tracing cakes back to early Celtic pagan festivities or pasties to the mines around Cornwall. Even without the history lessons, the bucolic village fete that provides the setting for the show—“England’s green and pleasant land”—is a powerful signifier of identity and a meaningful venue in which to affirm and challenge preconceptions of belonging.
By contrast, The Great Canadian Baking Show is both abrasively “Canadian” and has nothing meaningful to say about the country. In order to differentiate itself from the British version, it often reaches for kitsch. The first season’s “Canada Week” was especially egregious. When one of the hosts announced the technical challenge—maple cream sandwiched between two maple-leaf cookies—she declared that “the only thing more Canadian than that is if Céline Dion rode in on a moose drinking a brewski!” But there is, in fact, one thing more Canadian than that, which the camera immediately cut to—a scathing polite chuckle. While the contestants are generally likeable and diverse (although not geographically—50 percent of the contestants have been from Ontario for the past two seasons), many seem, like the country as a whole, as though the thing that unites them most strongly is the happenstance of being in the same place. Rather than showing us what Canada is and what it could become, it reveals profound insecurities about what sticks us together besides maple syrup.
The second ingredient to The Great British Bake Off ’s success is its hosts: the two comedians—currently Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas—who distract, cajole, and occasionally comfort the contestants as they work. Fielding is one of the creators of The Mighty Boosh, the anarchic TV show featuring characters such as Old Gregg and Naboo the shaman, while Lucas is perhaps best known for Little Britain, a sketch show that is probably too offensive to describe in today’s political climate. Previous hosts have all been drawn from the same fecund ecosystem of British television: mainly sketch comedies and “panel shows,” where comedians and celebrities participate in gladiatorial struggles of wit and charm. The result is a battle-hardened troupe of B-listers who are always able to think on their feet.
An uncharitable interpretation would be to say that the Canadian hosts are simply not as funny. When the series first aired, Dan Levy—best known for his leading role in the CBC’s Schitt’s Creek—and Julia Chan—an actress on the Global series Rookie Blue and on CTV’s Saving Hope—were at the helm. They were not perfect, but they had charm. Two seasons later, the show hired two of the stars of the Baroness Von Sketch Show, the CBC’s successful all-female comedy series (itself inspired by British shows such as French and Saunders and Smack the Pony). Unfortunately, watching their painful awkwardness with the contestants, judges, and one another was more reminiscent of another British show: The Office. The Great Canadian Baking Show is currently hosted by Ann Pornel and Alan Shane Lewis, both alumni of the Second City comedy group in Toronto.
While Pornel and Lewis are beginning to grow into their roles, all the hosts have struggled to find the balance between groan-inducing puns, hijinks, and genuine empathy for contestants that is required to make the show work. However, this might have more to do with a lack of practice rather than a lack of talent, since there are simply fewer opportunities to hone these sorts of skills on Canadian television. And when a celebrity does demonstrate a certain level of popularity and skill, as Dan Levy did, they move to the United States.
The final ingredient is the judges. They are the ones who determine who will stay and who will go, and they are also avatars for the viewers, who unfortunately are unable to taste any of the bakers’ creations. The Great British Bake Off is judged by Prue Leith, a South African–born chef and TV presenter, and Paul Hollywood (his real name), a silverback gorilla of a man with piercing blue eyes and an abiding passion for bread. Together, they form a kind of Freudian parental duo; with Paul, one gets the sense that contestants are vying at least in part for the approval of a withholding father. Occasionally, when something really impresses him, he delivers one of his famous “Hollywood handshakes” (it’s just a handshake but from Paul Hollywood). When this happens, contestants frequently become overwhelmed or even cry. These moments of triumph are thanks only to the troughs of harsh but usually fair criticism the bakers receive elsewhere in the show.
Sadly, the judges of The Great Canadian Baking Show fall prey to yet another weakness in the national character: they are too nice. Bruno Feldeisen, a French chef who sounds exactly like you’d imagine a French chef would, is meant to be the fiery yang to the yin of Kyla Kennaley, the Canadian pastry expert with kind eyes. Whereas Paul Hollywood stalks the tent like a blue-eyed hyena, looking for weakness, Bruno putters around like a middle-school teacher who’s afraid that the kids are making fun of him. Paul is daddy; Bruno is, perhaps, an affable uncle. Either way, I’m not scared of him.
Narratively, this deprives us of the tension in the judging, as most of the critiques—positive and negative—are delivered in the same register. At the beginning of the fifth season, Bruno claims that “if people thought last year we were hard on our judging, this year, Kyla and I, we’re going to bring it up a notch.” Later in the episode, he is served a cake that is largely uncooked and says “the parts that are baked properly are quite nice.” It also calls into question how reliable the judges are as stand-ins for the viewer. On many reality TV competitions, it’s obvious who has done well or done badly: the person who can’t sing sounded bad, the person who can’t dance fell over. But, with baking, so much relies on taste and texture, and the judges need to explain to us how the contestant succeeded—or failed. Are these honest critiques or are they simply Canadians being polite?
Of course, perhaps the most Canadian thing of all is what I’m doing now—taking something popular that Canadians made and trying to disparage it. In a 1950 essay, the Australian writer and critic A. A. Phillips coined the term “cultural cringe” to describe the reflexive habit of colonial societies to compare their own art to that of the countries that colonized them and inevitably find it wanting. He decried the “dismaying circumstance . . . that in any nation, there should be an assumption that the domestic cultural product will be worse than the imported article.” One could argue that that is what is happening here: Why, exactly, is it wrong to celebrate the success of The Great Canadian Baking Show and bestow upon it its maple-leaved laurels?
Except: that is not what’s happening here. The true cringe is not in finding the Canadian version wanting; it’s in making a “Canadian” version of a British show in the first place, particularly on a subject that has such limited roots in the national culture. Later in his essay, Phillips says that there “is no short-cut to the gradual processes of national growth” and notes his country’s progress “in the art of being unselfconsciously ourselves.” That progress is impossible to achieve if, rather than creating original programming, Canadian television providers create derivative shows and put the word “Canada” on them along with a beaver and some references to lumberjacks. It’s a national identity based on the narcissism of minor differences.
Ultimately, The Great Canadian Baking Show is neither great nor—in a meaningful sense—Canadian. We need more shows that speak specifically to the histories and identities that make up our country—shows that help us develop and retain talent in our cultural industries and shows that cut through the “aw-shucks” personality we’ve cultivated for ourselves. Until that happens, we are doomed to participate in a self-reinforcing cycle of hollow jingoism and maple cookies, listening to the diminishing echoes of our founding myths. The Great Canadian Baking Show ’s problems are also Canada’s problems: just as it reaches for the shrinking number of unproblematic national symbols as a stand-in for something meaningful, so too does our country. While this level of passion about a reality TV show may seem absurd (and it still is), I can’t help but feel there is something missing at the core of this program, and ourselves, that all the butter tarts in the world cannot fill.