Pop Culture Advent Calendar, Day 9: 'Alvin Isn't The Only Baker Daring To Add Fruit'

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Butter Times: The hosts and contestants of PBS' <em>The Great British Baking Show,</em> Season 3. Sniff.

Once a day, until Dec. 25, we'll be highlighting a specific small, good thing that happened in popular culture this year. And we do mean small: a moment or image from a film or TV show, a panel from a comic, a brief exchange from a podcast, or a passage from a book.


Look, we're not going to talk about what happened. You all know what happened.

We are here not to mourn, but to celebrate.

... Actually, celebrate may be too strong a word for a show of such mild, comforting, diversionary pleasures. A show so unutterably, soothingly, winsomely British that one at least theoretically witty wag once called it "a crumpet wrapped in a cardigan stuffed into a Wellington boot." (Reader, it was me.)

So let's go with appreciate.

Let's appreciate, in particular, Season 3, Episode 1, "Cake," which provides as good a primer on classic GBBO as you're likely to find. It's got every element of the elusive alchemical formula that produces Great British Baking Show gold(en sponge).

  • 12 genial, earnest, well-meaning contestants, none of whom are pharmaceutical sales reps, actor/personal trainers, flair bartenders, or fitness models, and all of whom, in the show's crucial reality-tv jui-jitsu, seem like they may actually be there to make friends.
  • Perfectly named judge Mary Berry, Bringer of Light and Knowledge.
  • Hilariously named judge Paul Hollywood, Whose Eyes Are Steel Under Cold Midwinter Starlight, Wielder of the Guarded Expression of Palpable Doubtfulness, Once and Future Wearer of the Eternal Chambray.
  • Hosts Mel and Sue, who are there to be charming and helpful (except on those occasions when they are very, very not), and to sprinkle slightly off-color puns over the proceedings like so many ribald coconut flakes. (Example: if a Madeira cake experiences a "good bake," its top will feature a prominent fissure. Cue the hosts' invitation to the contestants to "show us your lovely cracks!")

But the true service Mel and Sue provide, of course, is to constantly remind the viewer of the show's stakes.

Or rather: its utter lack of same.

The show knows this about itself. Revels in it, in fact, which is where its singular tone comes from. Episodes teem with moments like the one in which we learn that one contestant will be throwing figs into his Madeira cake batter, to the concern of judge/tranq-darted polar bear Paul.

Which leads to that wondrous segue, in voiceover:

Alvin ... is not the only baker ... daaaaaring to add fruit.

The ironic vocal spin — the English, if you will — placed on the word "daring" is the space this show has carved out for itself. It drips with a weighty gravitas that manages to feel light as a feather, because the very rhythm of that sentence — the way it jams the action word "daring" up against the hilariously prosaic "to add fruit" at the end — neatly and completely dismantles its tension.

It's a syntactical well the show goes back to often, happily. Later in that same episode, for example, the contestants make frosting. Cue the voiceover:

"If the sugar ... doesn't dissolve completely," we are informed, with a whispered urgency generally reserved for movie scenes featuring ticking time bombs, red wires, and blue wires, "the frosting ... will be grainy."


Previous Pop Culture Advent Calendar Entries

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Day 6

Day 7

Day 8

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