There’s nothing like a food metaphor to describe the experience of watching television. Like the salt shaker on the table, the food metaphor is always right there when a hungry critic needs some flavor. Sprinkle some over your word salad and bon appétit! Binge, scarf, inhale, or carefully apportion the delectable, delicious, scrumptious treat, veggies, comfort food, junk food, brain candy, or bonbon that’s being served up—unless of course its undercooked, and then push it gently away. Every review, in other words, is an occasion to raid the pantry, which is why I try to stay out of the kitchen: Inevitably, like a guest at a house party, I’ll end up there anyway, so there’s no need to rush. But watching Netflix’s The Big Flower Fight, I got my knives out from the start. The competition show has nothing whatsoever to do with food but has everything to do with The Great British Bake Off, to which it relates like an omelet to an omelette; a Pepsi to a Coke; a Twizzler to a Red Vine (and I’m not even from the West Coast). They are the same, except one tastes better.
The phenomenally successful Great British Bake Off belongs to a robust reality TV format—the craft competition show—that includes everything from long-running series like Project Runway and Top Chef to my beloved glass-blowing series Blown Away. Compared with The Bachelor, Real Housewives, and the Kardashians, this sort of reality program tends to be conflict-light and good-natured, wringing most of its drama out of tight deadlines and difficult challenges, instead of interpersonal tension. But GBBO, as it is widely referred to on the internet (another strike against The Big Flower Fight: BFF is already taken), treats even the format’s relatively minor beefs like a vegan: It’s having none of them. The participants on GBBO are invariably decent and well-meaning, and when they’re eliminated, they are swiftly sent home with a distinctly British lack of fuss. Their foe is the clock and the rise and the flavors and Paul Hollywood’s bad opinions, not their fellow contestants or the edit, a high-mindedness that makes the series uniquely wholesome, pleasant, and comforting.
To take my salt cellar off the table and use with abandon, The Great British Bake Off is a good reduction: It makes less taste like more. The show has been so successful, so unusual in both its perma-virality and the gentle reason for its perma-virality—it’s so soothing!—that it’s no surprise that Netflix would keep trying to copy it. A floral competition even seems like an inspired follow-up. In terms of familiarity, domesticity, and coziness, flowers aren’t all that far from flour, and they are much better looking. Made for Netflix by a production company that’s part of the British TV network ITV, BFF films in the U.K., has two jokey British hosts with limited expertise in flowers and a similar illustration style, and takes place entirely in one location, this one a geodesic dome, that, like the baking tent, is often shown from above, nestled into the British countryside.
But as anyone who has watched GBBO (or even cooked anything) knows, small tweaks can change the outcome of a recipe. The problem with BFF’s slavish yet limited copycatting of GBBO is right there in its title. The Big Flower Fight, like The Great British Bake Off, starts with an article and a sizable adjective, before it veers off course into faux-dramatic territory. A “fight” gestures at heightened stakes that are really humdrum. (On a reality show, what’s more common than a fight?) No one on BFF is tossing tables, but there is a dull kind of friction. On BFF, 10 teams compete to win a showcase at Kew Gardens. Each pair comes to the show with its own history and rapport: A dad continuously boosts his son’s confidence, and two idiosyncratic Europeans have a wonderfully productive skepticism about the whole project, but another pair’s dynamic seems to be adoring doormat and queen bee. The very fact of the teams’ long-term intimacy inevitably makes the show more about intra-team interaction than task.
That’s not entirely bad, since the tasks, themselves, turn out to be pretty corny. The “big” in The Big Flower Fight is literal. The challenge in every episode is some kind of enormous sculpture: giant insects, giant beasts, a couture flower gown a model can actually wear. One bouquet would not be a substantive enough challenge, but the bigness of the tasks feels contrived, as well as visually overwhelming. As GBBO has so capably demonstrated, an object the size of a cake can be fantastic to look at on a TV screen. A 10-foot tall orangutan, lemur, or squirrel, covered in grasses of various colors and textures is too big to assess in a few quick cuts. What’s wrong with making a regular-size mammal? Or, like, not making a hokey animal sculpture at all? The challenges are so overwrought and specific they deny the contestants the chance to do what is most satisfying, for them and us: make something truly inventive from a simple prompt.
There’s one other way in which BFF is much more like a standard competition show: its judge. The hosts, Vic Reeves and Natasia Demetriou, provide some comic relief (actually only Demetriou; Reeves is a nonpresence), but there’s only one standout personality, the American judge, florist and actor Kristen Griffith-VanderYacht. (He previously went by the name Kristen-Alexzander Griffith, if you’re wondering about the provenance of VanderYacht.) Kristen is extremely camera-ready and voluble, always looking for size and color, and begins heartfelt compliments with fake-outs, like, “I’m so mad at you”—long pause—“you said it wouldn’t be beautiful, but this is beautiful.” I am no particular fan of Paul Hollywood’s macho, stentorian authority shtick (and the way it codes GBBO as uniquely respectable and classy), but his kind of aggro restraint is relatively rare on reality TV. Kristen is very good at playing the part of the energetic, emotionally engaged expert, but it’s a more familiar interpretation of the role.
For a long while I was of the opinion that there is something fundamentally unsatisfying about food shows. The audience is perpetually missing a key piece of information: how it all tastes. But I have come to realize part of the pleasure of these series is that you’re not in charge. Watching food shows, you almost always know who will get kicked off and who won’t, because everything you think about the food comes from the judges’ interpretation in the first place: the conclusions have the thwock of rightness. In competition shows that aren’t about food, where you can see and assess the dress, the décor, the floral sculpture for yourself, you can make your own judgments, which leads to a different kind of engagement—not worse, necessarily, but also not frictionless. The Big Flower Fight isn’t as lulling as GBBO, but it’s not as jaunty, propulsive, or technically impressive as other competition shows either. Don’t get me wrong, it’s edible, but it’s someone else’s comfort food.