The Great British Bake Off is a competitive backing show that sees a bunch of bakers baking for the approval of the judges. It sounds fairly typical as far as competitive reality tv shows go, but it foregoes much of the drama and conflict endemic to the genre. With its rebellious optimism and general warmth, Bake Off is also a standard-bearer of hopepunk.
Hopepunk is a sub-genre (stylized like cyberpunk, steampunk, or Ken Liu’s silkpunk) that focuses on, well, hope. Coined by Alexandra Rowland, hopepunk is described as “the opposite of grimdark.” Grimdark, if you’re unaware, is what Wikipedia describes as “a tone, style, or setting that is particularly dystopian, amoral, or violent.” It’s Game of Thrones, it’s Joker, it’s ‘realistic.’ There’s value in grimdarkness, to be sure — Game of Thrones gets a lot of mileage out of its nothing-is-sacred approach to storytelling and deconstruction of accepted fantasy tropes towards crafting its new narrative. But as it’s gotten more popular, so too has the overriding idea that any ‘serious’ work has to be dark and gloomy; the idea of there being genuinely good people is too simplistic for the real world. Hence the rebellious nature of hopepunk, an idea that, nah, there is hope and goodness in the world. The label has since been retroactively applied to stories like The Lord of The Rings, with the hobbits’ unending optimism despite the awfulness around them fitting the bill.
But this rant essay is not about the interplay of grimdark dourness and unrelenting optimism. It’s about baking shows.
Competitive reality television started as we know it in 2000 with Survivor, a show that was as much about surviving the wilderness as it was outmaneuvering and out-politicking your teammate. That cutthroat approach to competing has worked its way into most competitive shows since, to the point that the quip “I’m not here to make friends” has its own TV Tropes page. Of course, this conflict drives interest in the show: conflict is what helps compel normal narratives anyway. Reality TV uses that, sometimes manipulating events to seem even more heightened than they are. It’s how you end up with heroes and villains, the underdog, the all-important drama. Is that guy having a mental breakdown? Excellent, play it up for pathos. Does she not like that other contestant? Encourage a rivalry, try and get a shouting match.
Bake Off eschews that approach, instead featuring contestants helping each other in tough challenges and displaying a warm camaraderie between not just the contestants but towards the hosts and judges too. No one seems to hate each other and there is a genuine attitude of trying to help each other improve; even the judges’ criticism containing the nugget of belief that the baker can do better. It’s wonderful, it really is, and it’s this streak of hopepunk that arguably has given rise to its huge popularity.
Because the show is popular. An informal poll of my friend group of fellow millennials in our late-twenties shows that most of us watch it and are pretty darn invested in it. We’re not alone, either, Bake Off is one of the most popular shows in the UK, being the most-watched broadcast in 2015 and 2016 and continuing to break records even after changing to a new channel. It’s taken off stateside too; the latest season broke into the top ten most-streamed shows in the US. I’m inclined to doubt that it’s gotten that big just because of the baking.
It’s a breath of fresh air, and a reality tv show that focuses less on the competition and more on the craft and genuine friendships is a staunch refutation of what is commonly accepted to make reality television ‘work.’ And yet, here it is, this punk of television show filled with pastel colors and bakers trying to avoid soggy bottoms. When the real world, with its unrest and pandemics, seems to be taking a page out of grimdark fiction, the comfort of a show like The Great British Bake Off is a reassurance, a panacea to the awfulness that has become so commonplace.
And that’s really punk rock.