At the soft, crème pâtissière center of The Great British Bake-Off, surrounded by layers of buttery talent, a frosting of the English countryside, and dollops of puns, is a radical idea: that camaraderie and charm are just as entertaining as cruelty and cutthroat competition.
We’re much more used to it now, the idea that reality shows can be kind and lighthearted, that not everything has to pit human versus human in the ultimate showdown for the biggest prize ever. But it’s an idea that The Great British Bake-Off helped popularize and normalize, all while providing season after season of warmth and entertainment, and that is why it’s my reality TV show of the decade.
The 2010s were the second full decade of modern reality TV’s life: their teenage years, essentially, and we saw a lot of growth and change. It’s the decade that gave us the rise and the fall of scripted shows masquerading as reality TV, and also gave us reality TV star elected as president of the United States, thanks in no small part to an image created by reality television—and, of course, to a lot of prejudice, racism, and sexism.
At the start of the decade, Love Productions popped up a tent, invited amateur bakers, and together they all created magic.
Hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins delivered puns while buttressing the contestants, especially when judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry were disappointed by what they found. But they were never cruel in their critiques.
Plus, Paul Hollywood’s clear and specific feedback was paired with several spoonfuls of Mary Berry’s winking double-entendre.
On The Great British Bake-Off, there is no prize, no stakes: just a plate. The contestants face three challenges, and the producers tell them what to expect for two of those, allowing them to practice repeatedly and bring recipes.
Let’s stop there: producers of a reality show don’t use surprise or gotcha moments to create drama. And even though the contestants practice and prepare, there is still an abundance of drama, all emerging organically from the ovens.
The contestants are amateur bakers, which simply means that baking isn’t their primary job, because their talent and creativity seems pretty professional to me, though my idea of baking is unwrapping a tube of cookie dough and spooning it onto a sheet pan.
Those who gather in the tent come from all professions and regions—and all backgrounds, with varying religions, sexual orientations, and ages. The Great British Bake-Off doesn’t ignore who they are, showing us flashes of their lives outside of the tent, but focuses on their baking abilities.
They unite around their love of baking, laughing and sometimes crying together, and often even helping their fellow competitors. That love of their craft and each other pours out of the television into our living rooms, offering a bright moment to remind us that we’re all connected and capable of love, even when there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary.
While it is a creative triumph that has earned fans, generated headlines, and drawn viewers, it hasn’t been a smash hit success in the United States. Sometimes, nice doesn’t win, and that is a lesson that the 2010s seem intent upon teaching us. But the show has affected the industry, and inspired new kinds of unscripted TV.
The Great British Bake-Off premiered in the summer of 2010 on public television in the UK, but had a very different format that first season, with the bakers and tent moving around the country. It didn’t lock into its format until the following year.
There is so much content and so little patience that not many shows are given that chance: to stumble, to really find what they are. But the show quickly became an international phenomenon, and between seasons one and seven, ratings grew five times.
The Great British Bake-Off is my selection for reality TV show of the decade because it is an excellent, consistently entertaining, convention-defying, and genre-defining—and also because it not only spans the decade, but also because of how it changed during that time.
A decade of change for The Great British Baking Show
After 10 seasons, The Great British Bake-Off not unrecognizable, but it is not the same as it once was. This decade has aged it, as it has all of us.
When American networks learn of hit international formats, they bring them to the U.S. and frequently ruin them by ignoring everything that makes them successful. That was the case with GBBO, too: CBS’s American Baking Competition, which aired in 2013, kept the same structure but added a $250,000 prize (!) and drained the life from it.
Two years later, ABC did the opposite: The Great American Baking Show retained nearly all of the charm and strengths of the original, and even had Mary Berry for a few seasons.
On PBS, the show’s name had to change, because we let corporations own phrases like “bake-off.” Meanwhile, PBS aired seasons out of order, and to not confuse easily-confused Americans, it re-numbered the seasons in the order that it aired them.
Later, Netflix barreled in with its money, as Netflix did this decade, and decided to give the seasons brand-new names that no one else was using (“collection”) because they can: fuck you, we’re Netflix!
Now, instead of being available to everyone with a television set and an antenna in the United States, The Great British Baking Show is now only accessible to those who give money to an overvalued tech company.
Money actually changed the show forever, when its production company, Love Productions, bailed on the BBC and moved the show to Channel 4, a shift from public TV to commercial TV.
That change led three of its four stars to leave. And, let’s face it, no one was watching this show for Paul Hollywood alone.
The loss of Mary Berry, in particular, seemed catastrophic at the time. What would the show do without her nods of approval, her tinge of disappointment when the bakers failed at a task, her twinkle when she said something dirty? I was despondent, as I was about the departure of hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins.
Bake-Off did suffer a loss, but it was also resilient, and found a path forward: Its new hosts Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding bring considerably different energy, but are still fun to watch. That first Channel 4 season was pretty close to what we’d been seeing on the BBC.
There are still cracks, and perhaps ones that will eventually split wide open, starting with the increasingly odd selection of challenges, and the way Sandi and Noel’s playing around can pull too much focus.
Meanwhile, GBBO’s greatest prize has become the approval of one man, in the form of a handshake from Paul Hollywood, which causes contestants to collapse with excitement; neither of the show’s two female judges, Mary Berry or Prue Leith, have any such prize to give.
I’m still enjoying it, but I’m sympathetic to the argument that this season 10 was evidence that Channel 4 has “chosen style over substance,” as USA TODAY TV critic Kelly Lawler wrote.
But The Great British Bake-Off is still going strong, and it’s doing more with less than many other shows. Its choices have inspired other creators and networks.
While there is plenty of reality TV that leans toward the mid-2000s idea that humiliation and conflict, the idea that reality TV can just be fun and good and silly has gained a lot of momentum this decade.
There is a lot of darkness in the world that’s sometimes mirrored in our reality TV shows, but The Great British Bake-Off has brightened up the landscape considerably.
The best reality shows of the 2010s
That is a misleading subtitle: I find it an impossible task to identify the best of a 10-year span, considering how many thousands of shows aired during that time. But I am attempting it anyway!
For this list, I kept to shows that premiered this decade. So you won’t find RuPaul’s Drag Race (which changed a lot over the decade) or Survivor (which had incredibly strong seasons and also truly awful ones).
Yes, I know: How frustratingly arbitrary! As I thought about this list, I looked at my past best-shows-of-the-year lists, thinking about which ones still stood out, and which ones I already forgot, perhaps because they ended up on my best-of list due to recency bias.
Like my best-of lists, I choose shows only that have exceptional craft, content, and entertainment. There are many shows that entertained me wildly but were empty calories, or were not that well-made. But here are the shows that excelled in every way possible—and, of course, appealed to me.
Atmosphere was the breakout star of The Last Alaskans (Animal Planet and Discovery Channel, 2015 to 2018), from its wistful score to its transfixing cinematography which captured the peacefulness of Alaska and the lives of its human cast members.
Of the attempts at hybrid fiction/reality series, the best is still The Quest (ABC, 2014), which immersed its competitors in a cinematic world.
Making a Murderer (Netflix, 2015) didn’t create the true-crime genre, but it certainly did lead to an explosion of true-crime docs. If only those who tried to imitate it would have also imitated the amount of time spent on crafting it.
O.J.: Made in America (ESPN, 2016) didn’t just retell the events of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, it reframed them. Its storytelling—which explored race, celebrity, and policing in Los Angeles, among other subjects—helped me understand not just the jury’s verdict, but how acutely the past is part of the present.
The Keepers (Netflix, 2017) could have been another true-crime murder mystery, but instead the mystery was misdirection: instead, it locked in to the effects that trauma and abuse has on survivors.
Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath (A&E, 2016) had a premise that was, as I wrote in my review, “uncomplicated but exceptional: It’s mostly Leah Remini having conversations with people who’s lives have been profoundly affected and damaged by Scientology.” While Remini owned her own role and offered indictments of those responsible, she always led with empathy.
I really enjoy The Profit (CNBC, 2013 to present), and appreciate how it avoids being formulaic, but as someone who’s fascinated by how TV is made, the stand-out for me is The Profit: An Inside Look, which has the show’s star and showrunner on camera, talking about how episodes were filmed.
I have incredible affection for the zany Nailed It (Netflix, 2018) and the punny Making It (NBC, 2018). Long before them, though, there was the delightfully nutty King of the Nerds (TBS, 2013 to 2015), a show that leaned into fun and frivolity, and celebrated people and their passions without mocking them.
Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (CNN, 2013 to 2018) was essentially a continuation of what Bourdain did in the previous decade on Food Network and Travel Channel: using food as a lens through which to meet people and learn about them. He explored the world without judgment but with bountiful curiosity, and I hope his legacy lives on into the next decade and beyond.