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  • Scott Carter Cooper

The Great British Bake Off

Always late to the party, I’ve recently discovered The Great British Bake Off, and I am enthralled on many levels. First of all, in the bleak midwinter during a pandemic, some gentle entertainment is quite in order. February is always a difficult month, but living in almost total isolation doesn’t help matters. Having a television show peopled with kind, charming characters you would enjoy meeting for a cup of coffee is exactly the balm required to limp my way into spring.

But on a pure entertainment level, the show is fascinating because for all intents and purposes it really shouldn’t work. There’s no real conflict because there’s no antagonist. Of course it’s a contest and everyone’s trying to win, but the show is presented in such a way that all of the contestants are almost a team, cheering one another on to victory. As critic and judge, Paul Hollywood comes closest to being an antagonist, but he’s clearly rooting for everyone’s success as much as anyone else. I’ve been watching the show for pleasure as much for research.

Then I made a realization. The conflict isn’t happening on the screen. The conflict is being generated within the viewer. Instead of picking a favorite, the show is structured in such a way that each episode you fall more deeply in love with all of the remaining contestants, so that at the end of each episode you’re not rooting for a winner, you’re rooting against failure. It is truly bittersweet to see a contestant eliminated each episode. And the stakes really appear to be nothing more than just the joy of winning. There’s no huge cash prize. Some of the contestants have gone on to writing books. In one case a particularly charismatic contestant has been given something of a spin-off. But it’s the simple joy of doing that makes the competition so compelling. The stakes are high because everyone agrees they’re high, but in the end what’s at stake is a glass cake plate. And the fate of the entire planet rests on the outcome of a chocolate souffle.

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