I’ve been eating a lot of sweets lately: cakes, pies, cookies. My wife bakes them, but my expanding waistline is not her fault. And I certainly won’t blame myself! So, I’ll put the blame where it rightly belongs: on an addictive TV baking competition called The Great British Baking Show.
Each season of the show starts with twelve amateur bakers, one of whom is eliminated each week. Every episode has three time-constrained challenges: (1) the “signature bake,” where the contestants bake their personal favorites; (2) the “technical challenge,” in which all the contestants make the same dish using very minimal instructions; and (3) the “show-stopper,” which gives the bakers a chance to dazzle the judges. In Britain, the show is so successful that when it recently switched from the state-sponsored BBC to a commercial station, its season premier garnered thirty-six percent of the national TV audience. Through PBS and Netflix in the U.S., the show has rekindled an interest in baking not only in my household but throughout the English-speaking world.
I must admit, I don’t just eat the food, I also watch the show—enthusiastically. For a non-baker, I have developed surprisingly strident opinions about meringues and pie crusts. I Monday-morning quarterback every mistake. I cheer and bite my nails. I yell at the TV: “Why are you messing around with sugar work?! You’ve only got five minutes left!” And I make woeful predictions: “He won’t last—he’s just not good enough with his flavor combinations”.
Of course, I’ve acted this way many times before—when watching sports. We tune in to athletic events partly for the spectacle, sure, but I think we become sports fans for deeper reasons. Athletic excellence requires not only a high level of skill, but also the grit to overcome setbacks and stay cool under pressure. In other words, being a great athlete requires virtue. And that type of virtue is just as evident on the set of The Great British Baking Show as it is on the gridiron.
Another reason people watch sports is to escape the socio-political strife of the real world. As a kid growing up in Lubbock, Texas, practically everyone I knew was a Dallas Cowboys fan. Every Sunday afternoon, our political divisions were erased, and we all gathered around the TV to root for America’s Team. When I was standing in line at the grocery store or waiting with my dad to get the oil changed, it seemed you could have a conversation with almost anybody about Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Troy Aikman.
But nowadays, sports broadcasts are as contentiously partisan as cable news. ESPN’s commentary has become more political (and more left-wing) each year. Colin Kaepernick, the ex-backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, was praised by the sports press when he refused to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” because, apparently, cops are racist pigs. The 2017 football season hasn’t even properly started, and a dozen Cleveland Browns players are already kneeling in a prayer circle during the national anthem in protest of white supremacism.
Even if you agree with the positions taken by ESPN, Kaepernick, and the Browns, mixing politics and sports does a disservice to both. When football fans flip on the TV, we want to watch the Cleveland Browns vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers, not the Cleveland Browns versus Institutional Racism. This is part of the reason fewer Americans are watching football and other traditional sports programming. We want to watch superb athletes heroically surmounting obstacles or tragically falling in gallant defeat. We want to see high human character on dramatic display. We want virtue, not virtue signaling.
On The Great British Baking Show, men and women, immigrants and the native-born, young and old, compete in a spirit of goodwill. Recent contest winners have included a Muslim woman of Bangladeshi descent, who brought bold new flavors to classic western dishes; a grandmother of eight from North Lincolnshire, and a twenty-three-year-old law student. The Great British Baking Show demonstrates how to mix all sorts a people into the batter, without adding even a dash of neo-Marxist ideology.
Until the sports world rediscovers this recipe, there will be more and more American men who spend Sunday afternoons drinking beer in front of the TV, cheering on a Scottish housewife as she totally nails the piping on her opera cake.