Competition Kitchens: American cooking shows are cutthroat while British baking shows are a breath of conflict-free fresh air

By on January 24, 2018

Conflict is the engine that drives the majority of the stories we’re told. Whether it be person against person, person against self, person against nature or so on, our most popular stories only hit their dramatic heights because of conflict. When it comes to conflict, no storytelling medium does it better in the modern era than reality TV.

Now, I know you’re smart, so we’re not going to go over the whole “reality isn’t really reality” thing here; reality TV is just a catchy title for a broad swath of programming that includes competition shows, the lives of people we don’t know and would never talk to in real life shows, shows about paternity tests and Fixer Upper. Trust me, when you sit down and think about it, pretty much ever reality show fits into one of those categories.

Most people got their first exposure to reality TV through MTV’s The Real World, where conflict was baked into the entire show’s premise. It was right up there at the top of the show: “What happens when people stop being polite and start getting real?” The answer, for a few seasons at least, was pretty compelling television. It’s a real shame that MTV doesn’t have the first few seasons up somewhere because they would make a great binge.

What you can stream online is the next great leap in reality TV: the first season of Survivor. It is here that the template for the majority of prerecorded, season long reality competition show is created. Survivor was a sensation, and taught us all about eliminations, immunity and, most importantly, villains. Sure, competition is pure conflict, but even real sports have to manufacture drama between players and teams to secure eyeballs, so the fact that the descendants of Survivor work so hard to include at least one person in the competition who is a total dick is no surprise.

Which is what makes The Great British Baking Show such a breath of fresh air, and goes a long way to explaining why it’s become one of the buzz shows of the internet. It is the rare season long competition show that doesn’t feature anyone who is supposed to be the baddie you hate or villain so devious you can’t help but support. Even when a baker does something like take another’s dessert out of the refrigerator and forget to put it back in, it’s never painted as “look as this backstabbing jerk.” Honestly, the most accurate description of The Great British Baking Show might be “a group of strangers look after each other in an effort to not focus on their own perceived shortcomings, and there are pies.”

It’s a show that doesn’t feel like it would work in America at all, which is why you rarely hear anyone talk about The Great American Baking Show, other than in the context of the sexual misconduct allegations. Americans need heroes and villains, and while you could add them to The Great (Location) Baking Show format, it just doesn’t seem like it would be as fun.

Look no further than Netflix’s Zumbo’s Just Desserts. Clearly inspired by TGBBS, the show tries to stand out by tweaking the formula in ways that just aren’t great. But beyond the structure of the show and the pacing of the competition, the issue at the end of the day is that they try to shove the contestants into clear archetypes, which backfires when the only people that are interesting — the “no-nonsense mum” and the “I’m better than all of you and I know it” dude — are the people we’re supposed to dislike. That it all builds to a showdown between the contestant the show leans hardest on portraying as likable and pure and the show’s lone anti-hero isn’t particularly surprising or interesting, especially when it takes a couple of unnecessary extra episodes to get there.

This is why the best American cooking competition, which you can and should stream on Hulu or the Food Network app, is Cutthroat Kitchen, because it doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to giving American reality competition viewers what they want. We want to see people be dicks to each other. We want to see people suffer for our amusement. We want to see people risk certain humiliation all of the chance to win a palty amount of money that will do nothing to lift them out of whatever economic woes they’re in. It doesn’t hide the point of what it’s trying to do the way that something like Chopped does. I find beauty in its brutal honesty; it helps that I’m a shameless Alton Brown mark.

Honestly, if Netflix wanted to build real goodwill, they’d set aside some of the cash earmarked for Bright 2, hire Mary Berry, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, and make their own version of The Great British Baking Show, full of nice people and ample food porn. There are a million mediocre dudes that can replace Paul Hollywood. You know it in your heart. PJH


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