The Great British Bake-Off is a national institution in its native land: even if it wasn’t currently airing on PBS stations and streaming on Netflix/Amazon (albeit as The Great British Baking Show, for copyright reasons), its cultural footprint is unavoidable as long as you have even a few casual acquaintances from Britain on your social feeds.
It’s an easy series to sink your teeth into (pun fully intended, and encouraged by the show’s sense of humor): there’s an earnest quality to the proceedings, eschewing traditional drama in favor of people doing their best, learning while they bake, and supporting one another through the length of the competition. It’s an incredibly solid format, as far as reality series go: the baking itself is the star, with an emphasis on both creativity and technical skill that is delicately balanced. It’s not surprising to see it gain a bit of steam as streaming television becomes increasingly mainstream, and it’s also no surprise that there would be demand for a U.S. version of the series.
Or, rather, a second U.S. version. Notably, The Great Holiday Baking Show is the second effort to adapt the format to American television, both spearheaded by Bake-Off producer Love Productions. Jeff Foxworthy hosted a 2013 version of the format for CBS entitled The American Baking Competition, which featured Bake-Off judge Paul Hollywood and looked to launch as an ongoing summer series. Unfortunately (and I’ll spare you the “more time in the proving drawer” Dad Joke here), America was largely disinterested, and the series completed its brief run with little fanfare.
It’s hard to know exactly what went wrong, but The Great Holiday Baking Show suggests that Love Productions has learned from the experience and made some adjustments. Rather than a traditional reality series, The Great Holiday Baking Show—on ABC instead of CBS—is a four-episode “event” timed to the holiday season, which reduces the ratings expectations and helps fill in during hiatuses of other original series (similar to NBC’s The Sing-Off). They’ve also chosen to feature two hosts, wife-and-husband Nia Vardalos and Ian Gomez, in line with the Bake-Off’s pair of Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, thus retaining more of the format’s comic rhythms. And finally, whereas the CBS series saw Paul Hollywood make the trip across the Atlantic, this time it’s the franchise’s heart Mary Berry who classes up the judging panel, here paired with pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, late of Bravo’s Top Chef: Just Desserts.
These are some smart decisions, particularly in the case of Berry: she’s the kinder of the two judges, but she is no less exacting than her male counterparts, which makes her an ideal balance when adapting the format to America. While Hollywood reads as a Simon Cowell-esque figure when transposed onto American reality television, Berry reads as grandmotherly, albeit with a tricky Brandy Snaps recipe up her sleeve for the technical challenge, and with some (justified) incredulity at certain American food traditions. Iuzzini, much toned down from his Just Desserts days, serves as an amiable-enough partner, and Vardalos and Gomez are solid presences even without much in the way of great material. As someone who consumed two seasons of Bake-Off this fall, this felt comfortably familiar, which would seem to be the first and most important test for fans of the franchise. We tend to presume that unassuming British formats like this one will be bastardized by American producers, but Love Productions’ involvement and the uplift themes of the holiday appear to have convinced ABC that there was nothing to be “fixed” with the basic format here.
Yet as “Cookie Week”—or “Biscuit Week,” for those reading from the U.K.—progressed, it became clear that the format would have to make some adjustments given the shortened length of both the series itself and each individual episode (which would run over ten minutes longer on the commercial-free BBC). The first is that there are only six amateur bakers, a notably small cast for a reality series. This is fine, given that the show is often more focused on the bakes themselves than on the individual bakers in a given episode, but it reinforced for me that there’s very little chance that any of these bakers will make a lasting impression in only four weeks—the format is built for the ups-and-downs of a lengthy competition pulling out character on a week-to-week basis, but here there’s going to be no time for that to unfold. The show is also missing the chaos that comes from the large casts at the start of a season: there just isn’t the same range of approaches or skills in the tent, and that has been one of my favorite elements of the series.
Additionally, there’s definitely some additional condensing in terms of time. The Signature and Showstopper bakes are each given their proper due, but it’s the Technical Challenge that feels rushed and underdeveloped. It’s the most interesting part of the format for me: while the Signature fulfills the need for a challenge that gives us insight into the bakers’ personalities and baking approaches, and the Showstopper creates more complex and television-ready baking experiences, the Technical Challenge creates meaningful separation between who has the necessary skills to go far in the competition. But since that isn’t a concern with the short running time, the Technical feels like an afterthought, albeit one that makes it clear that New York hospital administrator Grace is on her way home after a disastrous batch of Brandy Snaps.
In the end, it comes down to the baking. And if you’re less interested in the intricacies of reality format adaptation and the resulting production challenges, The Great Holiday Baking Show succeeds in offering what its title promises: great holiday baking. Lauren and Nicole each make a strong case for Star Baker, with strong flavors and presentation in the Signature Challenge (Santa Cookies) and some beautiful design work in the Showstopper Gingerbread challenge. And although Nicole is the more charming of the two contestants—there was snapping of the fingers—it was Lauren who earned the title of Star Baker, and offered some nuanced articulation of the choice of “holiday” baking in the show’s title by nature of her Judaism. Her Gingerbread Pagoda, inspired by her family’s trips for Chinese food on Christmas, showcased how the creative dimensions of baking allows for personal expression; this was also demonstrated by Nicole’s attempt to rewrite her boring marriage proposal into a romantic Paris getaway.
Moving forward, that baking can take center stage: the format has been established (they waste a few minutes laying things out early on), the personal backgrounds have been laid out, and the pecking order has begun to take shape. And so while the critic in me finds it difficult not to leap ahead to point out how the short run will cut short many of the format’s pleasures, the core of the series is as lovely and charming as it’s built to be, and I’m excited to see that play out in the weeks ahead.
- The full baker roster: Tim the “Boardwalk Baker” from New Jersey, Eddie the “Grandma’s Boy” from Chicago, Ainslie the “Aspirational Mitten Wearer” from Hollywood, Lauren the “Artistic One” from Virginia, Nicole the “Kindergarten Country Girl” from Georgia, and the eliminated Grace, the “Basic Baker” from New York. I’m rooting for Nicole,
- The idea of “Construction Gingerbread” vs. “Soft Gingerbread” would have been a more interesting battle if not for the fact that the people using soft gingerbread—specifically Eddie—were doing a pretty terrible job with it. Ultimately, the Showstopper wants both style and substance, but given the competition it’s hard to blame Lauren and Nicole for focusing on style (and structure).
- Speaking of Eddie: with only six competitors, it’s disappointing that we’re still stuck with someone who is placing store-bought jujubes on a lopsided gingerbread house making it into the second week of the competition. If we only have six contestants, I sort of wish we’d have gotten six of the truly best bakers, rather than a wider range of personal backgrounds and stories (although I appreciate and celebrate the interest in diversity).
- The addition of commercial breaks (which admittedly didn’t impact my commercial-free screener) was only really felt when they cut to commercial on Tim’s gingerbread falling apart, which didn’t end up impacting his successful balance of style and flavors. He managed a small redemption arc here, so I’m interested to see if he can make this a three-way race.
- I’m neither British nor “old-fashioned” in any meaningful way, but I still think eating cookie dough out of a tube is gross, so I hear you, Mary. (Also: given that Pillsbury is the reason that they’re unable to use the term Bake-Off in the U.S., I’m taking it as a subtle dig).
- Nia’s one major hosting moment comes when she compares Eddie’s lopsided gingerbread house to her uneven boobs, so there’s some hope that as contestants move out there will be room for her and Ian to develop into their hosting roles a little bit more.
- While we were never a big Gingerbread house family, we were big into Santa Cookies, specifically in the form of a giant “Santa Cookie” that my mother would make and decorate to leave for Santa.
- “Nothing sadder than a soggy bottom”—save it for pie week, folks.
- “It’s just cookies”—I know this isn’t the most cutthroat of baking shows, Grace, but that’s still not going to cut it.
- “My Santas are going to have to go without eyebrows—I just don’t have time”—boy, if I had a nickel.
- Given that so many shows are on hiatus in the month of December, we’re considering adding some weekly baking coverage: I promise it’d be more in the vein of the stray observations—with bonus personal baking reflections—than the more overarching “review” of the adaptation above, so if you’re interested please express this on the social networking platforms of your choosing, or by baking A.V. Club-themed cookies and mailing them to editorial.