What’s Making Me Happy: The Good Place

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

This week: the T.V. show The Good Place, created by Michael Schur (just put out on Netflix).

Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is dead and in the afterlife, greeted by Michael (Ted Danson), the architect of the community, and introduced to her soul mate Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), and her new neighbors Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto). This is “The Good Place,” heaven, she is told, where she will be rewarded for all the good deeds she did while alive. The problem, of course, is that Eleanor Shellstrop wasn’t a good person while alive. In fact, she was a prickly, callous narcissist. There are reasons for this, including a dysfunctional childhood, but by wanting no part of genuine relationships, Eleanor went through life as an amoral jerk. Now, surrounded by “good” people, Eleanor wants to change, and so her ethics-professor soulmate Chidi takes her back to school even though the situation causes a constant ethical dilemma.

Then there are Tahani and Jianyu, also soul mates. Tahani is the less-accomplished child of a wealthy and influential family, with famous “friends,” while Jianyu is a Buddhist monk who took a vow of silence….or possibly a not-yet-successful amateur DJ from Jacksonville. Really, this pair is no more perfectly matched than are Eleanor and Chidi.

I’ve been a fan of Michael Schur for some time, and while I’ve not seen Brooklyn 99 and am not that fond of The Office, I am hugely fond of Parks and Recreation. On a joke-for-joke level I still prefer Parks and Rec, but in terms of an overall show—characters, plot, pacing, feel—The Good Place is spectacularly good. Organized into chapters, the first season builds upon itself in a clear narrative arc guided by a singular question: will Eleanor be allowed to stay in the good place?, but with a conclusion that perfectly sets up a second season.

Beyond an avalanche of jokes, visual and verbal, highbrow and simplistic, is the warmth of The Good Place. The main characters bond over the course of the thirteen episodes, developing genuine emotional connections that become their own form of torture in turn. More than that, though, basic premise of “The Good Place” is a sort of gamification of life crossed with an eternal Match (dot) com, with points accrued or deducted for most every action, but the demerit system in particular is meant to be its own layer of jokes. There is no malice intended for any of the listed items, but the overall message about living a life that helps other people is most welcome. The viewer is invited to ask whether people can improve themselves, and while it may not be of much use within the immediate context of the show, the answer it gives is an unambiguous yes.

All in all, The Good Place is a warm, funny, clever show, and easily one of my favorite things I’ve seen this year. With season one binged in less than a week, I’m excited to see where season two goes.

An observation about the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I’ve consumed most of the recent Marvel content, mostly because it is available and easily watched. Calling it a drug would be too dramatic, but as far as televisual media goes, there are parallels. Some of it is good, some is pretty bad, but there is something that bothers me about the entire extended universe project: there is too much emphasis on the cataclysmic event.

Other people have written on this topic and accurately noted both that the movies are pivoting from this trope and that the material has often been strongest when dealing with the fallout from the events rather than dealing with the events themselves. However, my specific complaint has more to do with the TV show Agents of Shield. The show essentially deals with the relationship between normal people and mutated people. This season’s arc had to do with the unleashing of “Hive,” a being that can control people with mutations–and is the powerful being associated with the Devil that Hydra had been trying to bring to earth. His scheme involves a massive bio-weapon that would destroy humanity. The scrappy heroes have to fight against this thing that is much more powerful than they are. As one would expect, this leads to all sorts of tension and human stories, which, in a vacuum, work. But this narrative isn’t taking place in a vacuum. It is taking place within a larger cinematic universe.

Agents of Shield as a show about the events taking place in the shadow of the ECU movies works. It is a universe that has to grapple with increasing numbers of super-powered individuals and there are many more stories to be told there than simply reducing it to an “imminent doom” arc, but, after a season of doing just that, Agents doubled back down on the action, while nominally being a step down from the movie stories in terms of both resources (for production) and power level (resources and powers to apply within the story). The movies and the shows are doing different things, but still professing to overlap, which, in turn, leads to a dissonance and strains credulity.

The Hearth and the Television

One of my favorite weeks when teaching US History since 1865 is when we get to discuss the 1950s and the American family. One of the exercises I have the students do is to analyze the Simpsons from the perspective that the eponymous family is a representation of the 1950s nuclear family. I ask the students leading questions in order to reach this point, dad (works), mom (stays home), two and a half kids, etc., etc., and one of the final issues we come to is what the show considers to be the central room of the house. There is often a bit of hesitation on this point until I ask how the credit sequence ends, to which there is an immediate chorus of “in front of the tv!”

This semester I gave a lecture on the topic of the ancient Greek family. Along with the delineation (and gendering) of space, one of the traditional talking points on this issue is that the household is defined by its hearth. This is borne out in myth with the representations of Hestia and the ideologically charged declarations in literature about the sacredness of the hearth. And yet the sources for burning in the archeological record vary and there is rarely unambiguous evidence for a stationary or permanent hearth. Similarly, lease agreements from Olynthus indicate that buildings were not disposed of as complete units, but individual rooms could be leased out for domestic use. I don’t find this revelation to be particularly surprising, but it is notable that some of the rooms allocated for domestic use show no evidence of a hearth. Thus the hearth that makes the home may be symbolic rather than actual.

I offer the television as the object that has this same ideological potency in the modern American household. One extreme example is illustrative. In the pilot of the AMC show Madmen, Don Draper taunts his mistress for having purchased a television despite her insistence that she didn’t need one, with the result that she throws the offending device out the window of her apartment in the Village. Draper is mollified by the exchange, but his return home at the end of the episode (as it is meant to) offers a striking contrast. Not only does he return to a house where there is a wife and kids, but they kids are watching TV and Draper settles in with them—-because a television is something that you have with your family, not with your mistress.

As an addendum, I still think even in our decentralized media environment there is something to the television holding symbolic weight as a place for family, whether that is an actual place in a household or something that can be alluded to in fiction. The range of portable devices on which one can watch the shows themselves signify something else, but the television as a place and object continue to carry this weight. In turn, the violation of this communal aesthetic, such as the image of a single person repeatedly watching shows heightens the sense of obsession, perversity, or trauma.

Hudson University

I have mentioned before that I have something of a soft-spot for (often) ridiculous television dramas. Some I legitimately like, others feed bad habits without demanding anything of me in return, including not requiring money. The latest addition to my routine has been Blindspot, an FBI, spy mystery that revolves around deciphering tattoos on Jane Doe’s body and, by extension, figuring out who she is and why she came to the attention of the FBI. Usually I wish they would do more with this sort of character story rather than using the same hook for a new semi-procedural of discovering and then resolving corruption throughout the city. This week’s episode traipsed into a cliche that sits on my list of pet-peeves: the college campus.

One tattoo is revealed to contain significant digits for Hudson University’s highly lucrative football program national championships and seem to point to NCAA scholarship violations, so the agents wander to campus to speak to a coach who denies any knowledge and, on their way out, stumble across a school shooting. It turns out that the shooting is perpetrated by former (and current?) players who have rigged many several doors in a (student center?) building next to the football field with explosives and are now marching through the building with assault rifles in order to kill the coach because he molested them as children; the scholarship violations were hush-money to keep the scandal under wraps. The story is a clumsy retelling of the Jerry Sandusky saga at Penn State garnished with the school-shooting epidemic.

There is a lot that could be unpacked about the inconsistencies of the story. The shooters insist they are only after the coach, but nevertheless rigged doors in a student building with explosives. The coach evidently goes into the building a lot, but this sort of hand-wavy treatment of the college campus is frustrating. The student center of this fictional school contains a) cafeterias, b) classrooms, c) an auditorium, d) labs, and the whole thing is set particularly close to athletics facilities. At a small school this could certainly happen, but at a school large enough to have a nationally-competitive football program it is highly improbable. Instead of offering any sort of specificity, the writers offer vague snapshots of “college” and expect the viewer to be able to fill in the gaps. This is not particular to Blindspot, and Hudson University is a common setting for a large number of television shows when they need a stock-college.

At some level, though, this is a function of the medium. College is still a fairly ubiquitous experience for most people in America and that school is a convenient setting for a story rather than the point of the show, so vague snapshots suffice. Nevertheless, the preponderance of these snapshots help perpetuate stereotypes about the academy. (Perhaps office shows perpetuate stereotypes about offices, etc, but these shows seem to dally with the academy in a way similar only to entertainment industries.)

I don’t like how colleges are portrayed on TV, but have only one, tangentially related suggestion. Even if none of these other stereotypes are resolved, can we at least move them to a more believable location? The last time a New York school with a football program won a national championship was Army, in 1946. The show wants to be set in New York for a variety of reasons, but also to tap into the national obsession with football–two things that hardly go together.

Who needs nuance?

“But now, let’s talk about the bad guys,” Brian Kilmeade began on a Fox and Friends segment called “World on Edge” this week. His guest was Gillian Turner, a former staffer on the National Security Council and associate at Jones Group International, who spent the segment discussing concerns over terrorism in Turkey and other parts of the Middle East.

I first saw the clip in the gym without sound or subtitle, so all I knew about what Ms. Turner said was what the screen infographic said Ms. Turner said:

Turner: Turkey must defeat Assad, then ISIS.

I was so floored by this description declaration that I was fully prepared to dismiss Ms. Turner as an know-nothing hack drummed up by the Fox and Friends crew. Then I went back to the actual video. In fact, Ms. Turner give a short, fair summary of the security issues facing Turkey with regard to the refugee crisis and terrorism, noting that the Turkish government considers (and treats) the PKK as terrorists and that the Turks are accepting refugees with no financial support. The account is, almost by necessity, a bit anodyne, but she also dodges the segment’s premise in terms of the situation in Turkey leading to terrorism in the United States. Nowhere in this account does she actually mention Assad.

Now, I could be misled by a short segment, but nothing in this segment indicated that Turkey should do anything against Assad, let alone doing so unilaterally while Assad is supported by Russia. Turkey has enough of a strained relationship with Russia right now over the violation of airspace and subsequent shooting down of a Russian fighter (Pravda’s most recent coverage, or do a google search).

This sort of manipulation probably happens all the time on cable News shows and is a form of doublespeak where, not only is there vague and euphemistic language, but there can be two disparate statements that are being conveyed at the same time, as Stephen Colbert used to show on his “The Word” segment. Yet, there is one big difference. In my opinion, these cable news shows are not meant to be consumed as an all-encompassing experience. The noisiness of the on-screen information may “add” to the experience of someone listening to the show with the volume on, but is actually designed for gyms, airports, and other public screens that might be tuned to the channel. These screens frequently won’t have even a closed caption, so the shows rely on flashing icons and the movement of the hosts to draw attention to the screen where there is an easily-digested, if misleading, talking point.

As a final, tangentially related point, it sometimes amuses me to watch the Fox and Friends hosts fidget as they try to keep from checking their smartphones, which are set immediately next to them on the couch. Screens are addictive, it isn’t just a young-person problem.

Netflix and recapturing time

My personality is such that I am somewhat compulsive and somewhat addictive. I have a thing for completion and tend to get antsy if I feel that I have left something unfinished; Netflix enables these traits with hundreds of hours of shows designed to draw in and keep the viewer tuned in, only, instead of requiring him or her to tune back in next week, the next episode begins to play automatically after just a few seconds–and that is before considering the extensive library of movies and documentaries. Most of the time I use Netflix as background for activities like cleaning, cooking, or grading, but I have also wasted more time than I would like to admit. A lot of this time has been spent watching mediocre or worse shows and a lot of procedurals or semi-procedurals that have familiar rhythms and are easily mainlined. There are a lot of beautiful and truly excellent shows and movies there, too, including some of the Netflix original series, but there is a lot of dreck and a constant barrage of stuff.

I have mixed feelings about the race to develop new original content by every channel or service because of the value of shows that are owned in house, something the Hollywood Prospectus podcast has talked a lot about, but not just because there are too many T.V. shows. The thesis is that the race to produce a large number of these shows quickly has resulted in a lot of really good shows, but few great ones. As someone who primarily uses Netflix, my problem is more that Netflix has a tendency to push their own shows over the rest of the library. In other words, my complaint isn’t with the shows themselves so much as the feeling that they are being forced upon me.

Most of the shows I was committed to seeing through until the end had their series finales last year, but the bigger quirk of consuming these shows through a streaming service is that there is a lag between the air date and their availability online. Sometimes this means a good show will have multiple seasons available immediately, and, other times, it means that good shows only get discovered after they have been cancelled. This dynamic isn’t new, just more pronounced. Streaming services are all about instant gratification, but the only shows that are immediately available from the outset are the original series. I find that this makes it somewhat more difficult to find new shows that I can really become committed to. There are shows I want to see, but none that I feel so excited about that I will go out to pay for them sight unseen and the marketplace for streaming services means that there is no certainty about which one the shows will come to, or when they will arrive. Beyond that, I am increasingly finding that the shows I am most excited about are on or available through PBS, with the main exception being CNN’s Parts Unknown.

I have also reached a tipping point with podcasts and am falling behind on things I want to listen to, and podcasts are more often more informative, less demanding on my attention, and free. If I am going to let one of the two go, the choice is obvious.

The semester is about to start and I have been giving through to what I want my life to look like this year. There have been some recent changes at Mizzou that play into this, but, mostly, I am going on the job market for the first time and coming very close to ending a phase of my life. One of the big conclusions I have come to is that I become too engaged with Netflix and don’t get enough enjoyment in return. Its primary function is distraction and contributes to my anxiety level.

In sum, I’ve decided to cancel my Netflix subscription. If I want to watch something, I will pay for it (not for the whole package) or use my local video store, though I am giving myself a week to pick through my list on Netflix and watch a last few things. The goal here is to be more efficient with the eventual goal of making me happier. I thought similarly when I deleted my Facebook account, albeit for different reasons, and have had very few regrets, most of which boil down to how people use Facebook for social organization rather than my not having an account. Hopefully I will have similar results with this decision.

Heroes and Villains and Daredevil

In superhero shows, the hero is generally more boring than the villains. The villains are all manner of interesting or eccentric, while the hero has to play the boring, morally good foil for their absurdity. Along this same line, the interesting heroes are the ones who flit along the morally grey area. Batman instead of Superman; Wolverine instead of Cyclops. Yet one of the commonalities in the waves of superhero films and shows, the tendency is to dedicate the overwhelming majority of the screen time to the good guys–in a story of heroes and villains, it wouldn’t do to heroize the villains (there are other media for that). The villain, still often the more interesting character, appears enough to establish that s/he is evil and to advance the plot, but the focus is on the hero. The hero has his or her origin story, the various training sequences, the humanizing moments, and, ultimately, solving the mystery or problem that the villain lays out. I am generalizing here, of course, and it helps when the hero is attractive, charismatic, and all-around engaging, both as the alter-ego and in persona–and this is best accomplished with good writing and casting.

Recently, I have taken to watching the superhero shows as the come up on Netflix, including Arrow, Daredevil, and Agents of Shield. Each show has its own strengths and weaknesses and scope, with Agents of Shield being the most ambitious in terms of placing its narrative within a broader universe, both because it is set to work in conjunction with the second Avengers movie and because it has the largest cast of heroes whose stories we are following, but it rarely derives conflict from the tension between the person and the secret identity. There are betrayals, yes, but the tension is from the interpersonal conflicts. In contrast, the ego/alter-ego tension is exactly where Arrow gets most of its conflict and, in turn, the focus on the villains is how they are conspiratorial and menacing.

But the inspiration for these musings is Daredevil, which spends nearly as much time telling the stories of the villains as it does the hero. In the first few episodes, that screen time is dedicated to telling Matt Murdock’s origin story–his relationship with his dad, how he became blind–but that particularly story arc falls away quickly. Instead of focusing on his training or even his relationships (it is fairly exceptional for him to spend time with his law partner), much of the time is dedicated to developing the villains and their enterprises. The irony here is that these same criminals are generally mean and lacking in criminal charms. The show tries to find a balance between heroes who save people by amoral means and villains who hurt people, some for money, others who claim to do so in order to improve the world. So far, Daredevil seems to be trying to capture a noir ambiance, with all characters being human and flawed, but the villains frankly aren’t very interesting.

There is more to Daredevil than how the screen time is divvied up, of course, and the split pushes the show away from being a character study. (I heard one complaint that the show moves along slowly and, while the ambiance tends to be sluggish and deliberate, the plot moves pretty quickly in my opinion because the plot–and requisite action scenes–is all there is.) I have watched the first six episodes of Daredevil at this point and would characterize it as watchable, but not exceptional beyond this particular quirk of its construction.

Parts Unknown, No Reservations…and The Layover

Being a person whose TV consumption is largely beholden to Netflix, I am always excited when new episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s TV shows are added and doubly so when it adds new seasons of “Parts Unknown”, his CNN show. Junkie that I am, I watched all the episodes of “The Layover,” his second Travel Channel show. The premise of “The Layover” is that Bourdain lays out the types of things he would do if he had 36 to 48 hours in a city, how he would get around, where he would stay, and what he would eat. Instead of copious B-roll, there are also brief clips of interviews with locals to get their impression of the town and where to go and what to eat. Bourdain serves as a sort of specialized travel guide.

“The Layover” is not particularly good T.V., but I did watch every episode available to me. Some of the problems stem from the appearance that Bourdain mailed in a lot of the episodes and his demeanor, usually cranky and sarcastic, but still usually gracious and good-natured, became bitter and caustic. Nor did the compressed time frame, giving it the helter-skelter appearance that travelers are all too familiar with, help the aesthetic of the show. Further, the determination to lay out options for, say, getting from the airport to a hotel based on both time and money and a variety of hotels based on cost laid the groundwork for a show to revolve around how much this layover excursion is going to cost. Add these things together and it is the perfect storm for Bourdain to invariably take the more expensive option, all the while noting it is on someone else’s dime, and breaking up his rundown of great gastronomic experiences in order to find any bar in the city that has Pappy van Winkle.

Given the format and focus of the show, I can’t blame Bourdain, either. It just doesn’t make for great TV. Despite these complaints, the bigger (semi-related) problem is that “The Layover” is unbearably repetitive, with the same formula and concerns in each episode.

If “No Reservations” or “Parts Unknown” were strictly shows about food or cooking I would not be nearly as interested in watching. I enjoy how the shows focus on food, the people who make the food, and the relationship between food and life, but, frankly, Bourdain is not great at describing what he is eating aside from his dedication to muffled declarations of appreciation. What he does do well is describe the ingredients of a dish and discussing how it is made and the crew of the show does a great job of complementing this sort of description with beautiful shots of both the food being prepared and the final product. This sort of camera and production work then bleeds over into the rest of the show. They use an enormous amount of B-roll, for the food, the people, and the places and then edit it together into a beautiful episode.

This style is not an accident, but a feature of the show. When he was on the Nerdist podcast (if I remember the interview correctly), Bourdain discussed some of the artistic decisions in making episodes and particularly how they have a tendency to model episodes on classic films and to spend their prep time reading books, including a lot of literature, about their destination. The idea was both to get a sense for the aesthetic sensibility of the place and to capture something elemental about the people and culture there. Bourdain gets to do and eat some things that most people would never have the opportunity to because of resources and connections that are not readily available to most people and some of these likely cost a great deal, but still other things shown are street food options that probably cost less than eating at McDonalds. The price of these things is not the point and to focus on the cost would diminish the whole enterprise. There are restrictions on what can be done, of course, and there is an overarching celebration of people and places that remains constant throughout, but each episode is its own thing–and rarely is there a shot of the hotel or hotel room, let alone the taxi ride between the hotel and the airport. “The Layover” felt like work–pleasant enough work, but work nonetheless. “Parts Unknown” is art.

Hawaii 5-O and “grading shows”

The anatomy of a grading show (defined as a show to have on in the background while grading) is a funny thing. For me they fall into two broad categories. The first are old and familiar shows. The writing, the stories, and the rhythms are familiar. They take no brainpower to watch while marking bluebook exams or multiple choice tests. The second also requires minimal brainpower, but because they are a sitcom or procedural for which the rhythms are familiar, even if the specifics are not. If the show proves to be too captivating then its purpose falters because grading slows down. Usually, this means that the show has to be something I want to see, but far, far on the crummy end of the spectrum.

This current batch of grading has been me watching the reboot of Hawaii 5-O. I’m most of the way through the first season and have a few thoughts on this curious show.

  1. Hawaii 5-O is a show about a special law enforcement task force in Hawaii, led by a former Navy Seal and consisting of outsiders and outcasts. Among other things, their leader, Steve, has returned home to help uncover the cause of his father’s death.
  2. The writing on this show are pretty bad. It is aiming for fast-paced, cryptic, and yet direct. The result is that everyone seems to have inexplicable skills and knowledge, not to mention an extreme unevenness to the plot. Rob Morrow, one of the stars of Numbers, gave an interview a few months ago where he talked about the tendency of that show to be overwritten. It was insufficient for details or information to be conveyed by visual imagery or physical acting alone, but had to be said three times. Morrow mentioned frustration with this and how he used to try to create a script that was more spare and efficient and therefore elegant. Hawaii 5-O has this same problem in spades, with most of the excess dialogue also being bad dialogue.
  3. The superficial premise of the show is pretty people in paradise meets law enforcement, not unlike, for instance, Burn Notice. However, for this core concept, there is a lot of paradise and, aside from the stars, very little in the way of pretty people. The show is far more interested in shoot-outs and set-piece action scenes than in scenery.
  4. Throughout this episode, I’m trying to figure out what the core of the show is. Burn Notice has the tension between patriotism and his being blacklisted (with a dash of family dysfunction). Numbers has the good-hearted rebuilding of sibling relationships and the bringing of family together. NCIS has its goofy office hijinks. This show has aspects of all of these tensions and is desperately trying to recreate these formulas that worked (at least to some degree) in past shows, without actually pulling it off because it does some of all of those. There is a family vendetta, a blacklisted cop, another who is having a custody spat with his ex-wife with whom he would like to get back together. Then there is the extra seasoning of everyone being trigger-happy, which seems to be trying to cover for the failures elsewhere.

    This violence also manifests itself in that the main characters are all-too willing to blatantly disregard most laws, including to torture suspects. The characters sometimes allude to this in the sense that the leader of the team is not himself a cop. There is too much else going on, including that these law enforcement officers are always in a rush to get to their next act of sanctioned vigilantism, but they seem to want the core of the show to be tension of having a Seal in a cop’s job. Of course, asking those questions requires better writing and a larger cast, so Hawaii 5-O is happy to use everything as a throwaway, moving along quickly enough that maybe nobody will notice.

  5. What follows from the last point is that there is a visual representation of a militarized law enforcement that takes the stance that almost everyone else is a victim waiting to happen. Frequently, this results in stern talking-tos. At most there are token references to people outside of the main cast of the show, passing mentions of that they should not be discharging weapons in public spaces, and remorse when the “good guys” cannot save someone.

The Great British Baking Show

Through the magic of the PBS website I just finished watching four episodes of the latest season of the Great British Baking Show (aka the Great British Bake Off), a show that I had never paid much mind to, despite it utterly consuming my twitter feed for the past two seasons. Now I’m hooked and the fact that there are another forty five episodes out there is going to eat at me as though I’m going through withdrawal. But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself.

The show is an amateur baking competition where professional judges winnow down a field of candidates through a series of difficult challenges and demands. Each week has a theme and the format remained the same throughout: first, the bakers create their signature bakes where, within the bounds of the assignment, they are free to create whatever they want to do to show off; second, they have a technical challenge, where they all receive the exact same recipe and competed to do that successfully; finally, they have a showcase where they are given a specific thing to make and had to go over the top in terms of performance and presentation. In each case, the judges weigh the offerings based on the presentation, uniformity of size, texture, taste, and flavors. At the end of each episode, one baker is dismissed and one baker is named as the best baker.

As in any cooking show, the challenges are compounded because the contestants are barely given enough time to complete the tasks, which is doubly tough when many of the recipes require time for leavening and proofing, and others also require the dough to remain cold right up until the time the proofing starts and then must be proofed at room temperature. Also like other cooking shows, the contestants are encouraged to get creative with ingredients and flavors, but, unlike the American shows I’ve seen, here the contestants seemed encouraged to bring ingredients from their own gardens or jams that they made. Clearly, I don’t know all the rules that they are bound by, but there appeared to be far more liberality with ingredients here than in other shows.

Everything listed above, as well as the skill and inventiveness of the contestants, is what makes the show engaging and watchable, but is the whimsy and congeniality that make the show addictive. There is the whimsical veneer–the bakers bake in a white tent erected in a bucolic, verdant field and the music is straight out of a princess musical, but also a more substantive warmth to the show. The bakers are in competition with each other, yes, and there is always an element of worry and side-eyeing when confronted with an unknown recipe, but, frequently, this is borne of trepidation and a tendency to see what the others are doing in order to emulate them. Perhaps it is the nature of baking, but there is also time for them to observe their competition in a way that most cooking shows don’t offer. There is also no cutthroat element where the contestants snatch away ingredients. In fact, this is the only food show where I have witnessed contestants giving each other a hand, including one instance where the people who had finished banded together to help another contestant finish plating her baked goods.

This atmosphere also carries over to the judging. The judges are, if anything, more demanding than the judges in other shows I’ve seen and they are rating the entries on more qualifications. Yet they are nicer. The judges do not simply declare something a failure, but try to identify what went wrong in the process of creation and will give credit for whatever does work.

The Great British Bak(ing Show/e Off) is a charming show and has inspired me to bake more…as though I needed more inspiration on this or more distractions from my dissertation. In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain describes bakers, albeit bread bakers than the assorted bakings of this show, as wackos and weirdos who manage, through strange alchemy, to conjure amazing things to eat. I can’t really dispute this characterization, but, watching this show, one has to conclude that bakers are just nicer than cooks, too.