When I learned that ABC was planning a baking competition with Mary Berry as a judge, I did not expect that what would end up on television is The Great British Bake-Off.
But The Great Holiday Baking Show really is that. As some kind of holiday miracle, the show and format have not been Americanized; The Great Holiday Baking Show is almost exactly the original series. Cue the hallelujah chorus!
The new series, which has six contestants and thus four episodes, debuts tonight at 10 p.m. ET after A Charlie Brown Christmas. While it often seems that, like Charlie Brown, American TV networks have a way of killing everything they touch, what’s remarkable here is how ABC has trusted in the magic of the original.
This is actually the third version of The Great British Bake-Off to air in the United States—and although all three are produced by Love Productions, they are quite different. This year, PBS gifted American audiences with broadcasts of the original, British series, The Great British Bake-Off, which has found a following stateside after becoming the most-watched show in the UK.
Previously, CBS imported and adapted the format for 2013’s The American Baking Competition. Filmed in Georgia and hosted by Jeff Foxworthy, CBS’ version had the same theme song, the same illustrations of the bakes, the same structure for the competition. It was a considerable improvement over other similar shows, yet it was not the original.
The understandable mistake CBS made was piling on American things on top of the format: a $250,000 prize, a publishing contract, music that ratcheted up the tension, high-speed editing, drama.
ABC’s version backs off all of that, backing away from any impulse to Americanize the format. There is no prize except the plate; no drama except in what emerges from the oven. And it works.
The Great Holiday Baking Show is a holiday Great British Bake-Off
Watching the first episode, I was truly surprised at how much of the UK series is in The Great Holiday Baking Show—it’s incredible. It was even filmed in a tent in the UK. Yes, there are American contestants, and yes, they are a little rougher and not quite as charming as the unassuming British bakers the UK series has consistently delivered up. And yes, hosts Mel and Sue aren’t here, and they are a crucial component of the original series.
If the original series is an Oreo, the CBS version was like a Hydrox cookie: reminiscent of an Oreo, but totally not an Oreo.
If the original series is a perfect baked chocolate chip cookie, slightly crisp on the outside and warm and doughy in the middle, ABC’s The Great Holiday Baking Show is that same cookie, just with a different brand of chocolate chips, and maybe a butterscotch chip or two that fell in. There’s something different that’s a little disquieting at first, but really it’s still a great cookie.
For purists who love the original, here’s some of what’s the identical to The Great British Bake-Off:
- the location, Welford Park, where UK seasons five and six were filmed
- the tent and stations, now with some holiday decor
- the three-part structure of the competition, including star baker
- the technical bake with blind judging
- the illustrations showing us what the baker has planned
- the hosts and judges playfully interacting with the contestants
- establishing shots that pan across the lawn
- the music, with the addition of holiday-themed score
- Mary Berry!
Mary Berry is the key ingredient, and she is every bit as charming and exacting as she has been previously. She also has great chemistry with her new judging partner, Johnny Iuzzini, previously of Bravo’s Top Chef: Just Desserts.
New hosts Nia Vardalos and Ian Gomez are reverently following the same beats as Mel and Sue, though in some parts of episode one, it feels a little off, like trying to walk in someone else’s footprints in the snow. Yet their charm and chemistry as a couple helps, and there are flashes of personality and wit.
Here’s the bottom line: If you like this show, you will love The Great British Baking Show. If you already love The Great British Baking Show, you will probably like this show.
It’s worth remembering that the UK version took a full season to find its way to the now-beloved format, and while it’s sure to grow in future episodes—and future seasons?—The Great Holiday Baking Show comes out of the oven as quite scrummy reality TV.