"The Great American Baking Show" is back and as delightful as ever. Where else can you find a reality contest show where the competitors describe themselves as a "tight knit group" who provide each other with a "great support system?" The show represents the spirit of the holidays: Community, connection, sharing, all with the added benefit of watching the creation of beautiful, sugary concoctions. And then there's Mary Berry, the British queen of baking, who opens the first episode by saying that it's an honor to be a judge. When Mary smiles warmly and instructs the amateur bakers to do their "very, very best," you know they will. It's TV at its kindest.
This season the name has changed, it was formerly "The Great Holiday Baking Show," but the format remains the same. A diverse mix of 10 amateur bakers from across the country compete in a total of 24 challenges across eight themed episodes. At the end of the series, one contestant is named "America's Best Amateur Baker." Berry is again joined at the judge's table by Johnny Iuzzini and hosts Nia Vardalos and her husband Ian Gomez return to introduce the challenges, name the weekly winner and warmly send off the baker who didn't make the cut.
The contestants are made relatable with brief backstories that show them at home, at work and at play. There is Nancy, who has 36 grandchildren, Ashlyn who uses home foraged baking ingredients including hemlock syrup and Michael, an orthopedic surgeon who decorates with detailed precision. Each contestant is earnest and eager to please the judges, particularly Mary. No one wants a bad review but when Mary is disappointed in a confection's "soggy bottom," it hurts everyone a little more than when Johnny says: "You're better than this." That's as harsh as the criticism gets.
The drama is not between contestants or between contestants and judges, as it is in other cooking competition shows. Here, it is in the baking. One day, the bakers' skills are triumphant, their flavor profiles transcendent, their crusts the exact right color. The next day, they take a shortbread out minutes too early and all is lost. It's this unpredictability that raises the stakes and adds suspense. As a viewer, you can't help but feel a little of the contestants' anxiety. But the real enemy is time. Misuse it and icing slips off a too warm sponge cake mocking hours of effort. Like life, baking has its highs and lows.
But in the end, "The Great American Baking Show" is more about the highs. When a contestant must leave the series due to a family emergency, Ashlyn says that they all "decided to make her really proud." When another wins "Star Baker," a designation given each episode to the person who did the best in all three challenges, he says: "I'm just going to go forward humbly and work hard."
"The Great American Baking Show" is on Thursdays at 9:00 p.m. EDT on ABC.
-- Melissa Crawley is the author of "Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television's 'The West Wing.'" She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.