Over 10 years, multiple channels, and a complete talent turnover apart from the handshake-happy Paul Hollywood, The Great British Bake Off — sorry, The Great British Baking Show, to us Americans — remains a clinical-grade dose of serotonin. It started as a delightful counterpoint to its genre’s scream-heavy conventions. Our need to visit an alternate reality where the entire spectrum of human emotion is limited to the space between “lovely flavour” and “soggy bottom” has only increased over time.
In its current cycle, kicking off late last month, Bake Off has gone from a mental escape to a literal one. To meet the demands of the coronavirus pandemic, the judges, hosts, and contestants entered into an NBA-style bubble, a break from its typical custom of shooting on weekends so the amateur bakers can practice and live their normal lives during the week. (It’s indicative of Bake Off’s radically relaxed approach that its new extreme measures sound a lot like … a typical reality show.) While smaller, less flashy, and certainly less expensive than its major league counterparts, the Bake Off bubble serves an identical purpose: creating a distraction at a time when distraction has never been more difficult to achieve nor more necessary to find. Unfortunately, Bake Off’s hour of visual ASMR comes but once a week.
On the bright side, however, Bake Off’s once-revolutionary, still-unusual disregard for reality competition norms has spawned a cottage industry unto itself. The Bake Off ethos has four central components: nonprofessionalism (the contestants are regular people who don’t do this for a living, although some may go on to); quaintness (the skill at hand is niche yet accessible); Britishness (self-explanatory); and, for lack of a better term, niceness (the group dynamic is the inverse of “I’m not here to make friends”). Only Bake Off itself may hit all four, but the past 10 years have seen a wave of spin-offs both official and de facto—which, in quarantine times, means an abundance of placebos to bide time between biscuits and bread weeks.
We at The Ringer love a ranking, including one on Bake Off itself. And yet the spirit of Bake Off is antithetical to such crass customs as declaring one show unilaterally superior to another. To split the difference, all of Bake Off’s spiritual offspring have tied for first place, sorted by their compliance with the four-point scale, itself an arbitrary attempt to quantify Bake Off’s je ne sais quoi. Ready … set … watch other people do complicated tasks while you zone out before bed!
1a. The Great Pottery Throw Down
Bake Off Scale Score: 4.0
How it measures up: Perhaps unfairly, but also inevitably, this ranking is topped by shows explicitly created to build on Bake Off’s success by the same national broadcasting service that hatched the franchise before its defection to Channel 4. Recently uploaded to HBO Max, the most accessible of the three is The Great Pottery Throw Down, a BBC-financed ode to the fine arts of wheel and kiln. After all, isn’t pottery just a form of supercharged baking with way hotter ovens and less edible results?
Because the Throw Down shares a patron with Bake Off, it’s free to crib the formula, from the actual structure of competition (the signature, blindly judged technical, and showstopper challenges) to style and tone (soothing voiceover, B-roll of the contestants leading humble, industrious lives). Pottery has a higher barrier to entry and is less universally appreciated than baking, so the Throw Down hasn’t yielded as many stars in its three seasons on the air. But it’s equally devoted to evangelizing an art form that, while not uniquely British, represents a point of national pride. Besides, Bake Off already involves elaborate feats of sculpture—what’s a cracked bowl if not a firmer sort of sunken cake?
1b. The Great British Sewing Bee
Bake Off Scale Score: 4.0
How it measures up: Think GBBO x Project Runway. Listen, it’s the third “Great British [insert cutesy noun here].” We all get the drill! Let’s move on to the less polished imitators.
1c. The Big Flower Fight
Bake Off Scale Score: 3.5
How it measures up: Netflix is now an official partner in Bake Off, but that didn’t stop it from creating a wholly owned, from-scratch version of a pastoral, plummy-accented fantasy, this one with a dome instead of a tent. But the show falls just short as a true re-creation of the Bake Off ethos, because while “competitive flower sculpting” isn’t really a thing, the number of professional florists in the mix of this project still disqualifies it from pure amateurism.
You likely know co-judge Natasia Demetriou, a.k.a. Nadja from What We Do in the Shadows; you may not know head judge Kristen Griffith-VanderYacht unless you’re really into floral Instagram, but you’ll remember the name as the greatest Gossip Girl character who never was. Much like pottery, floral arrangements are hard to judge for nonexperts; most people can at least make a basic cookie, but ask them to turn a bunch of daffodils into a dragonfly and they’re lost. Still, The Big Flower Fight is exactly what Netflix wants it to be: something to populate the autoplay feature after you’ve reached the end of the latest Bake Off installment.
1d. The Great Interior Design Challenge
Bake Off Scale Score: 3.0
How it measures up: Half a point deducted for the relative lack of bonhomie, since contestants spend most of their time in individual rooms and not cheerily reassuring each other; half a point deducted for the not-so-niceness of having to deal with—shudder—clients as well as judges, an unwelcome intrusion on the part of market capitalism. Interior design means homeowners, and homeowners mean stifling artistic expression with pesky “preferences” for “the space they’ll be living in after the cameras go away.”
Otherwise, The Great Interior Design Challenge is a lovely instructional guide to the United Kingdom’s many styles of architecture and home decor. To Americans, most of whom can go years without entering a building designed before the 20th century, there’s both an educational component and a fantastical one. The focus is less on the can-do aspiration of an HGTV-type makeover show and more on illuminating the subtle distinctions between various forms of cottages, or the regional variation in Regency designs.
1e. Nailed It!
Bake Off Scale Score: 3.0
How it measures up: With its bright colors and irrepressible exuberance, Nailed It! is extremely American, give or take a French judge. Otherwise, as others have noted, Nailed It! and GBBO are about as similar in appeal as they can be without triggering the cynicism of a more literal-minded tribute like Flower Fight. Amateurism isn’t just part of the sell here; it’s the entire point. The average contestant on Nailed It! is more, or rather less, than a non-professional baker—they’re not a baker at all, but they’re game to tackle projects that require a Ph.D. in fondant. After structural engineering and rustic appearance, taste is a tertiary concern.
Tying it all together are the heroic hosting efforts of Nicole Byer, who recently managed to anchor five straight nights of the Creative Arts Emmys (your move, Jimmy Kimmel). The Mel and Sue to Jacque Torres’s Mary Berry, Byer brings exactly the right attitude to Nailed It!’s festival of ineptitude: just a hint of mockery, but mostly who-gives-a-shit encouragement. Contestants are commended for their effort, and steadfast refusal to follow common-sense recipes, more than their accomplishments. Gamely biting off more frosting than you can chew—it’s the American way!
1f. Making It
Bake Off Scale Score: 3.0
How it measures up: Part unauthorized Parks and Rec reunion, part Etsy spon-con, Making It was one of the first shows to translate the Bake Off sensibility not just to a new country, but an entirely new discipline. Nick Offerman and Amy Poehler emcee a rigorous contest of craftspeople—not as easy a hobby to channel into a competitive structure, especially since each contender has a different skill set and medium, but the producers try their damnedest.
Bake Off’s country tent becomes a grassy California field, but the setting is equally pastoral, an ideal background for Offerman’s offhanded woodworking. With little to unify its cast except, well, making stuff, Poehler provides the unbridled enthusiasm to tie the whole thing together. Making It just might be the Bake Off model’s ultimate proof of concept: no matter how loose the premise or specialized the skill, all American audiences want is sunny optimism and vicarious satisfaction.
1g. The American Barbecue Showdown
Bake Off Scale Score: 2.5
How it measures up: Competitive barbecue is not a full-time job, and none of the aspiring pitmasters on Netflix’s new series own restaurants like judges Kevin Bludso and Melissa Cookston. More importantly, barbecue is a deeply and fundamentally American art form, which makes it both highly unlike Bake Off and a homegrown answer to its patriotic showcase. Just as Bake Off can teach you the difference between Cheshire and Wiltshire, so Barbecue Showdown can outline the distinctions between Georgia, Carolina, and even Jamaican-inspired smoke.
Some of Barbecue Showdown’s competitors, including one of the finalists, are true self-taught novices; others have the dual lives that make Bake Off contestants so charming, including a car salesman by day, smoker by night. Cookston and Bludso have a Hollywood-and-Berry-esque good cop, bad cop routine, but by the final episodes, even the harshest critiques have faded into earnest expressions of respect. Barbecue is primal and sweaty where baking is prim and delicate, but both can teach the unschooled viewer respect for the craft.
1h. The Great American Baking Show
Bake Off Scale Score: 2.0
How it measures up: Though it’s only one of many international spin-offs, the American expansion of the Bake Off empire feels … uniquely cursed. There was a single-season effort way back in 2013 where Paul Hollywood had an affair with his cohost; then an entire season of the more successful, still-airing version on ABC was pulled from the airwaves after multiple women described accounts of sexual misconduct by another judge, Johnny Iuzzini. The Great American Baking Show is, well, American, but it loses another full point on the made-up scale by being too scandal-ridden to count as nice and soothing.
It’s also shot in England, which sort of nullifies the whole “American” thing. A revolving door of hosts and judges—no talent has remained the same throughout all three regular and two holiday seasons—has also prevented The Great American Baking Show from forming a solid identity. And yet there’s an automatic endorphin rush to hearing that telltale, string-laden theme song, or watching contestants fumble with a stand mixer. It’s like watching a baker botch a technical challenge: even when a recipe gets messed up beyond all recognition, it’s still fun to see how it goes wrong.