Great British Baking Show Review : Pop Culture Happy Hour Whether you like an éclair or a bagel, a biscuit or a Bakewell tart, The Great British Baking Show will bring all your feelings about baked goods to the surface. The hosts have changed, and the challenges have evolved, but it's still about getting that perfect bake. The current season is airing on Netflix, and was filmed in a so-called bubble to protect everyone from the pandemic. It also comes at a time when a lot of viewers at home have been taking out their sourdough starters and their cake pans.
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'The Great British Baking Show': Still Scrummy Or A Little Soggy?

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'The Great British Baking Show': Still Scrummy Or A Little Soggy?

'The Great British Baking Show': Still Scrummy Or A Little Soggy?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/929077733/929169882" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

Whether you like an eclair or a bagel, a biscuit or a Bakewell tart, "The Great British Baking Show" will bring all your feelings about baked goods to the surface. The hosts have changed, and the challenges have evolved, but it's still about getting that perfect bake.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

The current season is airing on Netflix and was filmed in a so-called bubble to protect everyone from the pandemic. It also comes at a time when a lot of viewers at home have been taking out their sourdough starters and their cake pans. I'm Stephen Thompson.

HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. We're talking about Netflix's "Great British Baking Show" on this episode of POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

Here with me and Stephen from her home studio in Los Angeles is Shereen Marisol Meraji, the co-host of NPR's Code Switch podcast. Hey, Shereen.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Hey. I'm so happy to be back. It's been too long.

HOLMES: I was just going to say, it has been too long. Also joining us from her home in New York is film critic and culture journalist Bedatri D. Choudhury. Hello, Bedatri.

BEDATRI CHOUDHURY: Hi. I'm so happy to be here. And my friends are cheering me on, and they were waiting for this day.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Oh, awesome. That's great.

HOLMES: Oh, well, it is a delight to have you with us to talk about such a fascinating topic. As we mentioned in the intro, we're up to the eighth season of "The Great British Baking Show" that's come to the United States. It's known in the U.K., where it's made, as the "Great British Bake Off," which it can't be called in the United States for silly copyright reasons. So if you hear those terms used interchangeably, they're the same thing. You should also understand, while we're being confusing, that they're actually on the 11th season. But three of those seasons haven't come to the U.S., so here on Netflix, it's Season 8. You following me? All right.

It was originally a public television show in the U.K. It jumped to commercial TV a few seasons ago. It's had some personnel changes. But right now, the hosts are Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas, and the judges are Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith.

And if you don't have the structure, there's typically a signature challenge. Everyone makes their own version of something like breadsticks or a sandwich cookie, something like that. Then there's a technical challenge where everyone makes exactly the same recipe with exactly the same ingredients and gets wildly different results. And then there's a showstopper. That's the final round, where the idea is to make something that's big and impressive. It's some particular assignment, like make a bread sculpture, make a tower of cheesecakes or something along those lines.

Stephen, you have not been a devotee of "Great British Baking Show" as long as I have...

THOMPSON: No.

HOLMES: ...Which is to say since always. That's not true. Tell me about your "Bake Off" experience.

THOMPSON: Yeah, I've had a long road to appreciating this show. When everyone was first getting into it - you know, I am a longtime fan of elimination-based reality TV. I love to watch a wildly mixed group of competitors whittle themselves down to just one winner. It definitely scratches that sports itch. And so I love - not - a different kind of sports itch.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: You know, I watch your "Top Chef," your "Survivor," your "Amazing Race" - all of these different shows where, you know, 10 or 12 or 16 get whittled down to one winner. Now, for several years, every time I tried "The Great British Baking Show," I found it too genteel, too low stress, if you can imagine such a thing. It was a little too easy to tune out. It was a little too twinkly. And every time I have said that to somebody, I've been yelled at.

HOLMES: Yep.

THOMPSON: (Laughter) And now at some point in the last year or so, I tried it again. And amazingly, cozy and comfortable and low stress are more appealing to me than they used to be.

HOLMES: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: And now any time there is the slightest inkling of conflict of any kind, I'm like, oh, no, no, no, no. You put (ph)...

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: ...More twinkle.

HOLMES: Yep, yep.

THOMPSON: So now I love "The Great British Baking Show," though I'm finding, as I've gone through - and I think a lot of people have had that experience - they have made some changes to the cast of the show. You know, when they switched from the BBC to Channel 4, they lost several core people. And I have been a little slow to fully accept those changes. I think the coziness, in part, comes from extreme continuity, and we've lost extreme continuity. And we can talk about some of my/our quibbles with how the show has evolved. But in general, I just want to say, I'm 100% on board with "The Great British Baking Show" in ways that I was not before in the before times.

HOLMES: So Bedatri, tell me about kind of your coming to "The Great British Baking Show." How did you kind of get interested in it? How did it become something that you loved?

CHOUDHURY: I actually first heard about the show in the British sixth season, and the winner was this fantastic woman called Nadiya Hussain, who's Bengali like me. And she had said, like, there's no culture of desserts at mealtimes for Bengalis. But she probably meant that we don't make baked stuff, which is true. And a lot of Bengalis took offense to that, and there was, like, a lot of drama. Some people got extremely mean. And it's so weird. They got mean over sugar.

(LAUGHTER)

CHOUDHURY: Like, Bengalis love sweets. They pride themselves for making the best ones, so they didn't really take very well to her comment. And then she made the queen's birthday cake. And I was like, wow, what is this show, and who is this person?

(LAUGHTER)

CHOUDHURY: So that's how I watched my first episode of the show. And I was hooked from the first time I saw it. Like, you know, I agree with all the adjectives Stephen used, especially twinkly.

(LAUGHTER)

CHOUDHURY: I love twinkly...

(LAUGHTER)

CHOUDHURY: But there was just, like, this instant sense of calm, you know, maybe from, like, the sets, which is, like, bright but still pastel-ish (ph). And, you know, and it's such low stakes. Like, the worst thing that can happen is, like, burnt cake or dough that doesn't rise. It's nothing big. It's nothing catastrophic. So I've always liked that, even - even before the pandemic...

MERAJI: Yes.

CHOUDHURY: ...Because who doesn't like peace, right?

HOLMES: Mm hmm.

CHOUDHURY: But I also love that it's not a cooking show in the sense that there is no pressure for the viewers to note down the recipe and make it.

HOLMES: Right, right.

THOMPSON: Right.

CHOUDHURY: Like, you know, it's not a recipe cook-along show. And the whole point is just to watch people bake. So I really - I mean, that drew me to it.

HOLMES: Shereen, you're also a little bit of a later arrival at "Bake Off." Is that right?

MERAJI: It's true. I came to it because I was looking for something to soothe my nerves, and I ran out of David Attenborough things.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: He hosts things, and I love his accent. And so I was like, OK, I need to find something else where there are British accents that can lull me to sleep. And so I tried "GBBO." And I came to the season that the star contestants were Ruby, Rahul and Kim-Joy, and they were just the shiniest, most amazing contestants. I just fell in love with them. I love the fact that there are so many multiracial contestants. And yeah, it didn't actually calm my nerves. It made me really happy and giddy and excited. And, you know, during this time, I think we need a little bit of that, too.

HOLMES: Yeah.

MERAJI: So I love the show.

HOLMES: It's interesting. I - when Bedatri was talking about the stakes and the kind of, like, the idea that the worst thing that can happen is a burnt cake, I was remembering - you know, one of my favorite things that ever happened on this show was one of the original two hosts - her name is Sue Perkins - had a moment where she was comforting a contestant who had had an entire cake just kind of collapse. And nothing set, so the whole thing just kind of went bleh.

MERAJI: Yes, yes.

HOLMES: And she was saying to this woman - she put her arm around this woman, and she said, it's just a cake. And the woman was saying, it's not just a cake, it's not - 'cause she feels so much pressure and stress because she's on this show. And Sue was saying - and Sue absolutely meant - it's still just a cake. It's just a cake.

MERAJI: Yeah.

HOLMES: Like, the minute that it stops bringing you joy to bake cakes, you should stop doing it 'cause it really is just a cake.

And I was really concerned about whether I would be able to follow this show into the next iteration when it switched over from public TV to commercial TV. And essentially everybody of the four original people - right? - the hosts, Mel and Sue, and the judges, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry - the only person from that group who stayed was Paul Hollywood. And I was really afraid that with the switch over to, at the time, Noel and Sandi as the hosts and Paul and Prue as the judges, I was concerned I was not going to be able to stay with this show. I was surprised how much I continued to like it in the second kind of iteration.

I will say Matt Lucas, who - in the movie "Bridesmaids," you see him as essentially man Rebel Wilson...

THOMPSON: Mm hmm.

HOLMES: ...is how he's kind of presented. And I think in life, that's kind of a good comparison. I do find him a little exhausting. They seem really into spending a lot of time with him kind of goofing around more than I want. Rather than those kind of little really warm drop-ins like Mel and Sue did, you get these bits that I find a little clunky.

THOMPSON: The word that I keep coming back to with Noel and Matt is antic.

HOLMES: Yeah, Yeah.

THOMPSON: There's a lot of antics and schtick and stuff that, to me, throws off the incredibly delicate chemistry of this show. I have not fully warmed really to either of them. Mel and Sue were much more dialed in to the twinkliness.

HOLMES: Right. I agree.

THOMPSON: And so - you know, both Noel and Matt have sketch comedy backgrounds. And I feel a little too much like I'm watching them do improv, which I don't need with my baking or in lots of settings.

HOLMES: Yeah. Bedatri, how have you felt about the changeovers?

CHOUDHURY: I know the British are calling their jokes smutty, and so I had to look up what that word means.

(LAUGHTER)

CHOUDHURY: But I also - I think Mel and Sue have that perfect sarcastic stiff-upper-lipness to their comedy, which kind of went with the whole Britishness of "The Great British Bake Off." And, yeah, I really miss that. And, you know, I think even with Sandi, I really liked Sandi's presence in the tent. And I also liked the pairing of Noel and Sandi a lot. But I do miss that old, very straight-faced humor which would send people into splits more than what Stephen said, the antics of it, of, like, you know, playing table tennis with tabletops, like, for no reason. But yeah.

HOLMES: Shereen, how about you? Where are you on these different, like, host pairings?

MERAJI: I like Matt. He doesn't bother me at all. And in fact, Matt's goofiness tones Noel down a lot, so Noel can play more of the straight man and have, you know, that straight-faced humor that you're talking about. So I think it's lovely, and it gives me a different side of Noel. I came to the show late, like I said, so I'm really used to Paul and Prue and Noel and Sandi. That's - those are my people on "The Great British Baking Show" or whatever we're calling it.

Now that I've been bingeing a bunch of old seasons and seeing Paul and Mary and Mel and Sue, I'm like, oh, my gosh. I'm going back and forth a lot. And I'm like, oh my gosh, I think I might like them better.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: What am I going to do? I love Mel and Sue. I love Mary and Paul. So you know, all that to say - for me, everyone has been charming. Everyone has been wonderful. They all have their, like, particular uniqueness that they bring. And I think Matt is quirky and funny and sweet. And I like him.

HOLMES: Yeah. Shereen, one of the things that you had mentioned to us was that you watch "Masterclass"...

MERAJI: Yes.

HOLMES: ...Which is also available on Netflix, which is where - and it goes back to - it was shot during some of the earlier seasons with Paul and Mary Berry. And they go through, and they kind of do the recipes themselves so that you can kind of see kind of what it should look like or what a perfect version of that would look like. But they also have specials where they do holiday recipes, and there's an Easter one, and there are a couple of different Christmas ones. Do you like "Masterclass," Shereen? I like "Masterclass."

MERAJI: I love "Masterclass." I can't wait to try puff pastry. I, like, rewound and watched Paul make his pastry dough, like, over and over again to try and get the folds exactly right. No, I absolutely love it. I do not understand Mary Berry's obsession with meringue, though.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: What is that? I do not like meringue. And it's - and she puts it on everything.

HOLMES: Yeah. One of the things I always find interesting is there is a real kind of dismissiveness to the people on the show about American desserts. And they'll talk about they're so sweet; they're too sweet; they're overly sweet.

THOMPSON: Mm hmm.

MERAJI: Yeah.

HOLMES: But to me, I always look at it. And I'm like, OK, they might be too sweet, but all this, like - you can just tell how different the styles of desserts are because I'm like, this is too much meringue and cream and air for me. I just don't...

MERAJI: Yes.

HOLMES: It has to do so much with what you're raised with 'cause I'm just - this, to me, is not - I would not want that much goo in a dessert.

THOMPSON: Well, this idea that cookies always have to be dry - like, a cookie has to snap.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: Like, dust particles have to fly out of it....

MERAJI: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...In order for it to be a real cookie - makes no sense to me as a - as an American.

HOLMES: Yeah. Bedatri, you were talking a little bit about sweets and what kind of sweets you have experience with.

CHOUDHURY: Yeah. So I mean, I didn't grow up in the U.S. So when I first came to the U.S. and I saw donuts for breakfast, I'm like, no, nobody eats sweets for breakfast. You know, we've always had savory breakfast. And again, like, you know, I kind of - because I grew up in India, I kind of grew up with that, like, a biscuit/cookie has to be very dry and you can snap it, and you hear it and, like, dust flying and all of that.

(LAUGHTER)

CHOUDHURY: So my introduction to gooey/moist - I hate that word...

(LAUGHTER)

CHOUDHURY: My introduction to gooey sweets have been a recent post-America fascination. And it's a new - I mean, it's a new liking on my part. So I get that. I mean, I have grown up mostly eating, you know, British desserts or Indian desserts, which are, of course, very different. But yeah, I mean, I also don't think - like, you know, going back to this season and the first challenge where they had to, like, sculpt a bust of someone...

THOMPSON: Oh, my favorite challenge - OK.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: The showstopper, yeah.

CHOUDHURY: I was reading somewhere that the cakes have to be really dry to hold together and form a face. And like, who likes eating dry cakes?

MERAJI: Mm hmm.

HOLMES: I will say, some of the challenges - yeah, some of the challenges this year have felt a little more about making a big splash than about necessarily being good to eat.

THOMPSON: Look; I can be very old school about this show. Like, I like it the way it was in the beginning. If every episode included a challenge where you had to make a bust of a famous person, I would be 100% on board.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: The first episode of the newest season of this show has somebody, like, making a bust of David Bowie out of a cake that looks like something you would sculpt out of mashed potatoes at the dinner table. There is a bust of Tom DeLonge from Blink-182. I am a big fan of the Twitter feed Cakes with Threatening Auras. I love a weird cake maybe more than anything. And so that was like drugs to me.

MERAJI: And there was a bust of David Attenborough.

THOMPSON: Yes, there was.

CHOUDHURY: Yes.

HOLMES: There was.

I think what made that challenge so delightful to me was that the people they chose to sculpt were so curious.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: It was like, oh, well, obviously I decided to make a bust of Bill Bryson.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Like, sure. Of course. Who wouldn't recognize - and the Blink-182 thing, I was like, out of all the musicians that you could have picked...

MERAJI: But it was perfect for that contestant.

THOMPSON: It really was.

HOLMES: It was.

MERAJI: I feel like that is Dave.

HOLMES: And I - one of the things I have found interesting this year is that they have stumbled on a couple more controversies, I guess, than I'm used to hearing about. And maybe that's just because, you know, in the last couple seasons, Netflix has started carrying these episodes only a couple days after they air in the U.K. So we're sort of more in on the original conversation about them. But like, there was one this year when Prue looked at people's - or she had, I guess, Paul's chocolate babka. And she said, oh, this is so much better than anything I've ever had in New York. And people were like, whoa.

MERAJI: They were not happy.

CHOUDHURY: No, but I really - this is why I love this show - is like after everything New York has gone through the summer - but just the ability of New Yorkers to rise to the defense of babka...

(LAUGHTER)

CHOUDHURY: ...Is fantastic. That is why I love this show.

HOLMES: It's true.

MERAJI: Good point.

HOLMES: And they got into a similar thing about, like, when they had the Cornish pasty challenge. And people were making, like, samosas and other things...

THOMPSON: Yep.

HOLMES: ...That did not really resemble a Cornish pasty. There was apparently a whole thing about that. I wasn't really qualified to participate in that controversy. But, you know, it just - it is such a delight to me to hear it be just a constant source of excitement for everyone.

And if you are watching "Great British Baking Show" or "Bake Off" here on Netflix, anywhere else, come and find us. Tell us what you think about it. Find us at facebook.com/pchh or on Twitter @PCHH. When we come back, it's going to be time for our favorite segment where we talk about what is making us happy this week, so come right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOLMES: Welcome back to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR. It's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week - What Is Making Us Happy This Week.

Shereen Marisol Meraji, what is making you happy this week?

MERAJI: So I really got a kick out of the video that's been all over social media of voters doing the Cha Cha Slide in front of a polling place in Philly, Pa. Now, I have to say - and I co-host a podcast about race and identity - that voter suppression is not awesome, and it's not something, like, fun or funny. And yes, these lines are ridiculously long in places that are disproportionately Black and Latinx. But - but what I liked about that video was that it showed the joy in resistance. And everything is just so craptastic (ph) right now that it was really nice to see people having a joyful moment. So that made me happy.

HOLMES: Aw. Thank you very much, Shereen. And we will provide a link to some of that video so that you can watch it yourself.

All right. Bedatri Choudhury, what is making you happy this week?

BEDATRI D CHOUDHURY: It's this Instagram handle called @LunarBaboon. And it's by the artist Christopher Grady, who was a teacher in Toronto. And he does these single to four-panel comics about day-to-day life - adulting, parenting, mental illness. And they're just so beautifully written. And, you know, there have been times when I have had a really bad day. And at the end of the day, I've been scrolling my Instagram feed, and I've chanced upon their page and have seen the comic strip for the day. And I've just felt so seen, heard and acknowledged.

Like, you know, going - and it kind of gave me this sense of - going through the pandemic and the ensuing depression and sadness, it just felt like somebody else is going through it. And it just felt like a sense of community. So - and he just has this way of cutting through the clutter inside your brain and saying something really touching and deep without being overbearing. It's just wonderful, and I hope more people check out his art.

HOLMES: Excellent. Thank you very much, Bedatri.

Stephen Thompson, what is making you happy this week, buddy?

THOMPSON: Well, I have a weird, arty 16-year-old daughter. And we were sitting down to watch a movie together. And all of a sudden, our streaming services were down, so we start digging through the DVD library looking for something Halloween adjacent. And we pulled out and showed her for the very first time "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." My family rolls very, very deep with "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." My sister has seen this movie probably 300 times. I don't know exactly how many for sure, but it was hundreds when we were kids. But I wasn't sure. You know, the movie's from 1975. Movies are paced very differently. Production values are not 2020 standards. I wasn't sure if she would go for it. She has already watched it again. I've overheard her telling her friends that they have to see it. She's developing a deeper and deeper obsession with the songs. If you're wondering if it's possible to pass along your weird cult-y (ph) childhood favorites on to your skeptical children, it is possible. My dark-hearted, arty, Halloween-loving 16-year-old is now obsessed with "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," and she just found out that there's another movie called "Shock Treatment" that is next in her queue.

HOLMES: Thank you, Stephen Thompson.

What is making me happy this week is a podcast called "Chameleon: Hollywood Con Queen." It is hosted by Josh Dean and Vanessa Grigoriadis, who are both journalists. And it is about - a couple years ago, there was a story circulating about people who kept getting conned into believing they had jobs, like, on movies. There was somebody impersonating particularly women film executives and making people believe, like, if you go to various parts of the world, someone will pick you up, and you'll be working on this movie. And it was mostly, like, people who were kind of freelancers. It was people who were working as, like, trainers or makeup people. And it wasn't even clear what the point of the scam was 'cause you would get there and eventually, you would figure out that there was no job. But then the question was, like, where is the person even making money on this con? So they kind of go in and try to investigate who was doing this and what was the point of it and why did it work. Again, it's called "Chameleon: Hollywood Con Queen," and that's what's making me happy this week.

And that brings us to the end of our show. If you want links for what we recommended plus some recommendations that are exclusive to the newsletter, you can subscribe to our newsletter. It's at npr.org/popculturenewsletter.

You can find all of us on Twitter. You can find me @LindaHolmes. You can find Stephen at @IDislikeStephen. You can find Shereen @RadioMirage. And you can find Bedatri @Bedatri - B-E-D-A-T-R-I. You can find our editor Jessica Reedy at @Jessica_Reedy. Our producer Candice Lim is @TheCandiceLim. You can find our producer Mike Katzif @MikeKatzif - K-A-T-Z-I-F. Mike's band, Hello Come In, provides the music you are bobbing your head to right now.

So thanks to all of you for being here.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

CHOUDHURY: Thank you so much.

MERAJI: It was a joy.

HOLMES: And thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all right back here next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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