The Great Trans-Atlantic Scone Off

Can ABC’s The Great Holiday Baking Show rise above the beloved British original?

Lauren Katz on "The Great Holiday Baking Show”.,Lauren Katz on "The Great Holiday Baking Show”.
Lauren Katz on The Great Holiday Baking Show.

Photo courtesy Michael Bourdillon/ABC

Never has there been a better opportunity to compare and contrast the mores and sensibilities of the U.S. with those of the U.K. than in The Great British Bake Off. The baking competition show has held the Brits in its thrall for six seasons now, becoming a ratings phenomenon through its portrayal of the profound struggle behind every good trifle. And now, America has a copycat version! The Great Holiday Baking Show, which debuted on ABC on Nov. 30, will run for four festive episodes this holiday season—during which time you are guaranteed to become hugely fat.

Shakespeare wrote that “comparisons are odorous.” I disagree. Comparisons are totes fun. Contrasting the Brit version and the Yank wannabee is a total blast!

Full disclosure: I have a bad attitude. I know nothing about baking and have no interest to learn. I also harbor a profound and irrational prejudice against American baked goods. Whilst British baked goods are always yummy, scrummy, rustic, and taste as if they have been baked in the Cotswolds by organic lesbians, American baked goods tend toward the revoltingly saccharine. It’s something of a paradox: Yes, those feral, binge-drinking Brits may eat more sugar per capita than anyone on Earth, but they somehow, when it comes to baking, manage to act as if World War II sugar-rationing is still in effect.  

My sweeping generalizations were dramatically supported during the Holiday Baking Show’s premiere. The cookie-plate-for-Santa challenge produced an array of brittle, Technicolor, sugar-encrusted horrors that would definitely have plunged even the most tri-athletic Santa into a diabetic coma, to mention nothing of fracturing his National Health dentures.

Contestant casting? Again the Brits take the prize. While the American show was diversely populated—Lauren was a nice Jewish lady, Eddie was a delightful black Chicagoan, Grace was a Staten Island gal with a Joan-Cusack-in-Working-Girl accent—the contestants lacked the archness and eccentricity of the Brit original. For comparison, note that GBBO season four included the following: Rob, a bizarrely meticulous space satellite designer who would have been right at home breaking codes at Bletchley Park; Deborah, a petite, special-needs dentist who had more than a whiff of Hogwarts about her; and Toby, an appealingly dotty depressive from my hometown of Reading. The aggregate effect of the GBBO casting is very Agatha Christie. Throughout the British show, I kept expecting a contestant to collapse from cyanide poisoning while bleating “don’t eat the macaroons! “ or to stagger into the tent—both the U.K. and U.S. shows feature a magnificent Downton garden-party style structure—with a javelin sticking out of his/her/zir back.

Emotions? No surprise here. The Brits hide them and the Yanks don’t. The majority of the ABC contestants became lachrymose at the drop of a spatula. This speaks well of the mental health of the inhabitants of my adopted homeland—emotional incontinence is good for the psyche, right?—but also runs counter to the intrinsic keep-calm-and-carry-on-baking ethos of the original show.

Recognizing the critical role played by Brit emotional constipation to the success of the original, ABC producers wisely imported—thank the Lord!—Mary Berry, England’s “Royal Queen of Baking.” Mary, national icon and star of the Brit original, is not an especially nice person, or a particularly horrible person. She is just an insanely British person. Her detached demeanor and clipped pre-War diction screams Isobel Crawley, while her Victorian vocab is straight out of Mrs. Beeton’s cookbook. When, during the premiere, a contestant’s brandy-snaps took a turn for the worse, Mary softly offered an observation: “The eggnog cinnamon cream is weeping out.” British understatement is also a key component of Mary’s brand. Regarding Eddie’s catastrophically collapsing gingerbread house, Mary commented: “There could be a little more finesse with your piping.”

Now let’s compare hosts. The British show has the cheeky comedy duo Mel and Sue who revel in double-entendres—Stand away from your hot baps! Stop fiddling with your dough balls!—and cheeky badinage. They also pronoun every cake or biscuit with “she” thereby calling to mind the gin-addled, old-school homosexuals of my youth: “She’s gone a bit pottery-class, hasn’t she?” comments Sue upon observing a contestant’s hideously malformed Angel Cake. This contrasts vividly with the ABC show where Nia Vardalos and Ian Gomez, while warm and jolly, appear to be reading rara ejaculations written by millennial interns from cue cards.

Time for a little introspection. Am I simply acting like a basic British-born bitch? Is my made-in-England slip showing? Has my objectivity gone out of the window? Seeking to verify the veracity of my comparative observations, I reached out to designer Liz Lange, a baked-good addict and longtime devotee of the GBBO series. American Liz’s U.K./U.S. comparison take-away after watching The Great Holiday Baking Show was short and sweet: “We are less educated and far less skilled, but we also have significantly better teeth.” Quod erat demonstrandum.