They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but in television it's mostly just an inevitability. Any show that turns into a hit today spawns spinoffs and imitators, from the wave of fantasy series that followed “Game of Thrones” to the endless initialed crime procedural franchises that followed “CSI.”
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but in television mostly just an inevitability.
Then there’s “The Great British Baking Show” (aka “The Great British Bake Off”), a series that, after a decade on the air, a transfer from BBC to Channel 4 and multiple casting turnovers, can still score 10.4 million viewers. And those are just the U.K. numbers. No one knows how well the series does on Netflix — but with multiple imitative series in the works, the answer is probably “very well, thank you.”
The pandemic turned the already massively popular “GBBO” into an American household staple, to the point that even other TV dramas featured characters watching “GBBO.” The reaction by other streaming services (and by Netflix itself) has been relatively swift. This fall brings back yet another cohort of bakers to the tent, and a raft of imitators as well, from Hulu’s “Baker’s Dozen” — which also features Americans baking in a tent in a pastoral setting — to Netflix’s “Baking Impossible,” which features former “GBBO” contestant and fan favorite Andrew Smyth as one of the judges, alongside American chef Joanne Chang, and astrophysicist Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi. “Baking Impossible” and “Baker’s Dozen” arrive back-to-back in October in a head-to-head competition not unlike two bakers both deciding to do Black Forest gateau-themed spins on their signature challenge. Both while shows attempt to improve on the original recipe, only one really rises in the proofing drawer.
“Baker’s Dozen” is a superstitious person’s nightmare. Each episode begins with 13 contestants and everyone must make 13 treats in the early going. The winner of the opening round gets the advantage of 13 minutes with the week’s special guest and expert baker to help with the main bake.
It’s a cute concept, and the bright sunny feel of the setting (and the bright sunny attitude of everyone involved) echoes the “GBBO” aesthetic. But instead of narrowing the field as the series goes on, each week a new winner is crowned, meaning fans don’t get to know the contestants very well. Each episode is a sugar rush, but it fades quickly.
“Baking Impossible,” on the other hand, has carefully taken notes on what creates the genuine standout moments on “GBBO” and other baking series — notably bakers who have real math skills and spend their time engineering wonders out of flour, milk, eggs and sugar — and centered the series on that aspect. It’s kind of a wonder that no one has done this before, to be honest. While some “GBBO” winners, like Nancy Birtwhistle and Nadiya Hussain, are more cake-and-icing artists, there’s almost always someone who comes into the tent and starts doing differential calculus on the back of a piece of parchment paper. That person often winds up in the finale.
Andrew Smyth, who was in the tent back in Series 7 (which Netflix labels Collection 4), is literally an aerospace engineer and is clearly delighted that there’s an entire show now dedicated to his brand of baking. (Viewers should note that “GBBO” is quite aware of the success of engineering contestants and the current season has two bakers with engineering degrees, including fan favorite Jurgen.)
The series teams bakers with engineers to create showstoppers that are genuinely worthy of the name, from cake boats that float to crash test cars that pilot themselves delightfully into walls. Even better, the series focuses on the actual engineering that goes into making these creations, something “GBBO” has never spent much time doing. In fact, most reality shows don’t bother with these sorts of nerdy deep dives, even the ones (like “Lego Masters”) whose entire premise is based around them. Netflix’s embrace of the STEM behind these creations is a welcome development.
These are not the only “GBBO” spinoffs, mind you. Discovery+ is becoming a powerhouse streaming service, with 18 million subscribers and counting in less than a year. And its Food Network catalog includes every kind of baking and chopping competition available as a top selling point. HBO Max was quick to grab “The Great Pottery Throw Down” in its early post-launch months, one of two direct spinoffs from “GBBO’s” Love Productions. (Think “GBBO” for pots.) Netflix already has several variations on the “Bake Off” model, from “Blown Away” (“GBBO” for glass) to “The Great Flower Fight” (“GBBO” for gardens) to “The American Barbecue Showdown” (“GBBO” for meat). Peacock has “Making It” (“GBBO” for “Parks and Rec”).
In other words, every streaming service is rushing to get their creations in the oven. But with so many baked goods in the works, it’s only natural that a few sugary treats collapse upon arrival. Hopefully, fans will be served more “Baking Impossibles” than “Baker’s Dozens.”