Every season, there are a few reality TV show ideas that make me wonder if we are, in fact, done. After all, what’s next? “Waiting in Line for Movie Tickets: The Fight to the Finish” or maybe “Stuck in Traffic without Music: The Will to Survive”? There are only so many jobs, so many situations and so many contests that have inherent dramatic value. By the way, don’t be stealin’ that movie tickets idea. I may pitch it to basic cable yet.
This question brings us to “The American Baking Competition,” which tries to wring drama from nice people cooking yummy food. The show is a big hit in the U.K., so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the drama of watching people bake pies might excite audiences here. After all, Americans love food, and there are plenty of reality competitions surrounding the stuff. “Top Chef,” “Cupcake Wars” and “Iron Chef” are not only successful, they’re fun and tense as hell.
Unfortunately, “The American Baking Competition” is not “Top Chef” or even “Cupcake Wars.” With cuddly comedian Jeff Foxworthy as the host, it’s a little nicer than either of those shows, and the mild-mannered contestants reflect that.
During the three challenges (they must make a favorite dish fitting the theme of the week, attempt a recipe given to them that lacks some vital instructions, and face a “showstopper” challenge), mostly they talk to themselves or their food, urging their crusts not to be gummy on the bottom. Sometimes they give one another a little encouragement or complain about their newfangled ovens. It seems that the amateur bakers cast on this show are friendly folk who whip up desserts to make their friends and families happy, not to shove said desserts down their throats and spike the whipped cream for the win. They seem less concerned about snagging the $250,000 grand prize and a publishing contract than the prospect of disappointing the judges. As I said, nice.
It’s up to judges Marcela Valladolid and Paul Hollywood to provide some acid to the recipe. Both accomplished professionals don’t hesitate to tell these amateurs their beloved family recipes are borderline disgusting or that they have no business making a pie crust. If anything, they seem slightly out of step with the down-home sensibility of the show, complaining about a lack of proper technique when they’re being served stuff that sometimes looks one step elevated from your grandma’s canned soup casserole. Still, Hollywood is the George Clooney of baking (at least that’s what the Brits say, as does at least one competitor) so his more cutting observations probably go down a little easier because of it.
Still, the amateur bakers don’t put up a fight with the judges, or even quibble with one another. There’s some crying, yes, though it’s mostly quiet tears of shame. Maybe it’s too soon for the gloves to come off, or they’re too far away from the winner’s spot to turn up the heat. But no matter. What the show lacks in intensity it makes up for in food porn. Gigantic apple pies, chocolate-cherry tarts, lemon meringue goop — the arena in which the show seems to understand American appetites is in showering us with decadence that has no calorie count (at least if you’re watching at home — Jeff Foxworthy is going to need a heart bypass by the end of the season, I’m sure). Even better, the judges pass along tips on how to avoid beginner’s mistakes.
It’s a surprisingly nice reality TV show for a major network to air, and as we move into the summer months when no one wants to turn on a stove, it might be exactly what we need. I wouldn’t say no to getting the peanut butter chocolate bacon pie recipe from this week’s winner Francine, either. Well, maybe that’s better left on TV instead of my hips.
Did you watch “The American Baking Competition”?