In the middle of the Tisch App Blogging Hiatius, I came down with a bit of a head cold, which meant I spent one weekend doing pretty much nothing but eating, sleeping, and watching TV shows on Netflix. Having recently finished The X-Files, I decided to check out other things Gillian Anderson’s been in, and watched the first episode of The Fall. Without giving too much away, it’s a police procedural where Anderson is working to solve some very unpleasant crimes, and, while she continues to be an incredible actor and the unquestioned standard bearer for sardonic, unimpressed eyerolls, I decided it was just a little too intense to fully appreciate while drowning in phlegm. In a haze of decongestants, I remembered that I’d heard good things about The Great British Bake Off, and found the one season currently available on Netflix in the US. “Perfect”, I thought, “A show about baking. This should be nice and relaxing.”. I could not have been more wrong.
The Great British Bake Off was perhaps the most stressful TV-watching experience I have had in my entire life. Objectively, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. It is, after all, only a baking show. In the past two years, I’ve watched shows that dealt with vicious homophobia, wide-ranging government conspiracies, and the American prison-industrial complex — all of which are objectively much more upsetting than whether or not a pie is going to hold its filling perfectly.
But on reflection, I think this is why I find The Great British Bake Off so anxiety-provoking: Its worst-case scenarios are not-bad enough that I can get fully invested in them.
Take Orange Is The New Black, for example. It has its moments of levity, but it also has appalling human rights abuses and sundry other unpleasantries. I don’t think that’s a weakness — many of the most powerful arcs on the show are driven by moments of profound cruelty — but it does push me back from fully investing myself emotionally in the plot. I know that awfulness is just around the corner, so I hold a little bit of myself back to keep from being overwhelmed by it. Or take The X-Files. Its stories aren’t based on things that are actually happening in the real world, but failure for its protagonists would ultimately result in the Earth being taken over by belligerently hostile aliens*, which is not a nice future to contemplate.
To feel the full brunt of these nastinesses would be incapacitating. I don’t have it in me to imagine the suffering that these characters go thru in all its vivid detail and then go on with the rest of my day. So I hold back a little. I still get emotionally invested in the stories at hand — this isn’t an Eight Deadly Words [TV Tropes] scenario — but I leave in a bit of a buffer so that, as the end credits roll, I can say “Wow, that was upsetting, I hope so-and-so gets some kind of justice next season” and then brush my teeth and go to bed or whatever else is next on my agenda.
Contrast this with The Great British Bake Off. The worst thing that can happen there is for someone’s bake to go so disastrously wrong that they get kicked off the show. Is this upsetting? Sure. It’s never fun to see people fail to achieve their dreams. But ultimately, we’re dealing with poorly constructed pastries or loaves that didn’t bake all the way thru — the stakes are just so much lower than anything else I watch. It’s much easier to get over not winning a TV baking competition than it is being repeatedly brutalized by racist prison guards or partly devoured by a giant hallucinogenic fungus.
So I can go all-in emotionally with the Bake Off because I know that even at its very worst, it’s not going to be so upsetting that I get overwhelmed by how distressing it is. And, since there’s no buffer, the result is that the emotions I feel watching it are actually more intense than the ones I feel watching shows with objectively higher stakes. It’s just bread, and that’s why I’m so emotional about it.
*Well, possibly. It’s also possible that the Government Conspiracy To Cover Up Aliens is itself a conspiracy to cover up the fact that There Are No Aliens And It Was The Shadow Government All Along. The writing in some of the episodes is . . . less than exceptionally clear. At this point the only thing I’m really sure of is that Dana Scully is canonically immortal. #Priorities