This is hardly an original observation, but it's one worth repeating: The Great British Baking Show is the nicest hour on television.
In these sour, divisive times, this cooking competition — part of a TV genre not exactly known for fostering positivity — has for the past eight years shown ordinary hobbyists attempting complicated baking challenges, while being kind and helpful to each other. It would be condescending to call the series "adorable." So let's just say it's "hopeful."
The Great British Baking Show returns on PBS this weekend for its fifth season, with episodes that originally aired on BBC Two in the U.K. in the summer of 2012 under the show's original name The Great British Bake Off. (For reasons not really worth explaining, PBS has been airing the series out of order all along and relabeling each season.)
The format remains the one American fans have gotten used to: A handful of home bakers, of various ages and socio-ethnic backgrounds, gather in a tent in the countryside each week, where they make an assigned assortment of cookies, cakes, pies, tarts, breads, and the like, to be assessed by judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry and lightly ribbed by hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins. The contestants prove their fallibility repeatedly — and usually bear their failures with good humor — but also produce astonishingly tasty-looking treats, with creative designs.
It'd be easy to overthink (as I probably am right now) why The Great British Baking Show is so appealing. Some have noted the portrait of Britain that the series paints: not the distrustful and dismissive Brexit-supporting U.K., but a place where old white grandmas, young gay men, and folks of African or Middle Eastern backgrounds hug each other, cry together, and enjoy each other's company.
That's undeniably a big part of why GBBS is so beloved: because of its utopian multicultural vision. But the sense of universal brotherhood and sisterhood goes hand-in-hand with what the show is really saying about its contestants, and — by extension — us. We can root for each other. We can appreciate each other. We can make something beautiful.
That runs counter to what people have grown to expect from reality competitions, where "I'm not here to make friends" is practically a credo. But perhaps that perception is short-sighted. Recently, two more of my favorites from the genre — Fox's So You Think You Can Dance and the History Channel's Alone — have begun airing new episodes, and a third — The CW's Penn & Teller: Fool Us — is about to air its fifth season. All three of these series also recognize people who accomplish something amazing.
In Alone's case, that recognition mostly comes from the participants themselves. Stranded in the wilderness with primitive supplies, a few cameras, and no company, the contestants (which in this new season are a handful of "all-stars" from previous Alones) document their own efforts to find food, stay warm, and avoid predators. Along the way, many of them have deep, moving revelations about who they really are and who they want to be.
In So You Think You Can Dance, young dancers from a variety of disciplines work with award-winning choreographers in routines that exhibit an almost preternatural grace and sensitivity. And again: They cheer each other on, because they understand the effort and imagination behind what their fellow contestants are doing.
And then there's Penn & Teller: Fool Us, which returns to The CW on June 25. Like The Great British Baking Show, Fool Us started out as a British series (airing on ITV), hosted by Jonathan Ross. The CW acquired and re-aired the original episodes in the summer of 2014, and drew good enough ratings to justify producing more.
On paper, Fool Us sounds potentially mean-spirited. Mouthy Vegas magician Penn Jillette and his mute, puckish partner Teller invite new and old prestidigitators to perform card tricks, mentalist acts, quick-changes, and whatnot. Post-performance, Penn and Teller — who know just about every gimmick and technique in the magic business — try to figure out how the trick was done. If this were handled with less care, Fool Us could be both humiliating and ruinous for the contestants, who'd see their secrets exposed on national TV.
But while Penn and Teller have a tradition in their act of revealing the hidden mechanics of classic routines, they also respect the necessary mysteries of their community. Roughly three-fourths of the time on Fool Us, they're not fooled. But the way they let the performers know is to whisper in their ear, or to use coded language, preserving the illusion.
Regardless of whether or not the hosts successfully break down a trick, they and announcer/presenter Alyson Hannigan are always hugely complimentary of the magicians, praising the personal stamps and original spins these men and women put on the basics of their craft: making something disappear, guessing a card, et cetera. More than anything, what I personally love about Fool Us is that it functions as a mini-history of an arcane artform, connecting today's illusionists to the legends of vaudeville and early television.
Really, that's not too different from what The Great British Baking Show does — or So You Think You Can Dance, or Alone. These series isolate and showcase things that talented humans have done for hundreds or even thousands of years, establishing a lineage that we can be proud of as people, even if we ourselves lack the knack to do what we're seeing on TV.
More importantly, what these shows suggest is that our best days aren't behind us. We can still cook. We can still conjure. We dance. We survive.