Upper Crust

Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong country. There's lots to love about America, but in some respects, I feel like I may have been happier if I were born in England. Oh, wait. I forgot about English food. OK, never mind. America rocks. But there's no denying that British culture holds a ton of allure for me, and I heartily enjoy a lot of their television shows. And now, two of those shows have just had their season finales. Well, their season finales as they aired in the United States. They ended in Great Britain a long time ago, and I wish I knew why PBS insists on delaying the schedule like that. But that's a topic for another day. Today is all about... Early-century soap operas and insanely-addictive reality shows!

The first show was Season 5 of Downton Abbey. The show has never reattained the heights it reached in Season 1, but at least it's gotten to a kind of even keel of fairly reliable entertainment. In fact, it's so even-keeled that it looks like I never wrote a wrap-up of Season 4. It all just kind of blended together. Let's do so now. In Season 4, O'Brien, Alfred, and Ivy left. Anna got raped, and Edith had a baby. Some other stuff happened, too, but just seeing those plot points written out reminds me of how annoying that season often was. It wasn't terrible, but I was hoping for more.

And I got it! Season 5 isn't half-bad. Romantic entanglements are the order of the day. Mary has to choose between two men, and gets caught up in a situation when she decides to have a sexual walkabout with one. Violet gets flirted with by a still-married Russian aristocrat. Isobel gets proposed to. An art collector propositions Cora. Jimmy gets fired after sleeping with a visiting guest. Rose marries a Jew. Romance is even in the air for characters you wouldn't expect, and a surprise proposal is the highlight of the season finale, and probably of the season itself.

Downton Abbey does tend to drag out boring story threads, though, and Season 5 is no exception. The police are looking into the death of Mr. Green, and never stop pestering Bates and Anna about it. Thomas spends episode after episode trying to force Baxter to tell her awful secret, and when she finally spills, it's not a big deal. The saga of Edith's secret child has some promise, but it's mostly just a metric ton of scenes of her bothering the couple looking after her daughter. So while it was another fairly satisfying season, I doubt the show will ever be able to take my breath away again.

Know what did take my breath away? A competitive reality show. I know, I'm shocked too! I still can't believe just how great The Great British Bake Off was. Season 5 is the first one to be aired on American television, and I don't understand why it took so long. Over on these shores, it's called The Great British Baking Show. I'm not entirely sure why the name was changed in the transition, but I've heard theories that maybe Pillsbury has some sort of trademark on the phrase "bake-off". Fuck them, I'm using the original name.

I've watched plenty of competitive reality shows, and I've watched plenty of food television, and cannot emphasize enough just how stellar this show is. The contestants? They're all talented people that...wait for it...don't use that talent as an excuse to act like raging dicks. No, really! Everyone is nice and supportive. They have friendly chats as they compete, and they don't backstab each other. All their criticisms are directed at themselves, and how they'd like to improve their skills in the future. The biggest contestant drama of the season is BinGate, which I won't spoil here, but look it up. That's as fierce as it ever got. American reality shows like to excuse terrible contestant behavior with a sack of bullshit about how awful people generate drama that audiences want to watch, but The Great British Bake Off puts the lie to that claim. This was a group of wonderful people all doing their best to display their abilities without ever once feeling the need to tear each other down. It was such a breath of fresh air.

The judges? Equally awesome! They have names that don't even sound real (Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood), but they are just as superior to their American counterparts as the contestants. They articulate their opinions clearly, they're firm about their criticisms without being needlessly cruel, and they freely compliment people for work that was done well. In other words, they're judges, rather than catch-phrase spouting personalities.

The challenges? Equally awesome! Each episode is split into three challenges. There's the Signature, in which the chefs all make the same type of baked good, and are allowed to bring tried-and-tested recipes from home (the openness about these recipes is another good change from American cooking reality shows, in which everyone is expected to make things up as they go along). Then there's the Technical, in which the bakers all make the same thing, and are just given the barest of instructions. The best thing about this challenge is that it's blindly judged; Mary and Paul have no idea who made which entry until they've ranked them. And finally, there's the Showstopper, in which the bakers are challenged to make something complicated and visually arresting.

The production design? Equally awesome! I cannot over-praise the camera work on this show; everything looks incredibly beautiful. The editing makes it clear how every contestant is progressing, ties in check-ins and interviews, and intersperses the challenges with pretty illustrated animations about what each baker is making.

The hosting? Equally... OK, this is the one nitpick I have, and it's a minor one. The show and challenges are hosted by two women named Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, and when they're chatting with the judges or contestants, announcing winners and losers, or voicing over the explanations of what each baker is making, they're perfectly capable. But the other 60% of their time is throwing out terrible puns, cringy double entendres, and annoying fake accents. Mel is usually fine, but Sue really needs to cool it with the need to pronounce "bake" with a different quirky tone in every episode.

That complaint right there? Is literally the only thing I can find to criticize about the show. I don't know if I'll be able to track down any of the previous seasons, but you can bet I'll be trying. And it is my fervent hope that this show continues on, in exactly its current form, for a long time. As long as they keep sending it over here for us poor Yanks to enjoy.

Downton Abbey - Season 4: B-
Downton Abbey - Season 5: B
The Great British Bake Off - Season 5 (AKA The Great British Baking Show - Season 1): A+


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