Saturday, October 31, 2015

Jolly Good

You are likely unfamiliar with The Great British Baking Show, but you should make a point to seek it out. Following a group of amateur UK bakers competing to be named the best, TGBBS is unlike any other food-based competition show on the telly. Read: ridiculously charming and awesome.

Most food-based competition shows feature strict time limits, restricted ingredients, outrageous obstacles (cooking with no utensils, Top Chef?) and contestants that are often out for blood. TGBBS is the complete opposite. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a hearty episode of Top Chef wherein every other word out of the chefs’ mouths is left to the imagination thanks to constant bleeping. However, it is enthralling to watch a group of people participating not with the goal of knocking out other contestants in order to ensure their ultimate glory, but rather to perform their best simply for the sake of being able to hold their head up high when it’s all said and done. Bakers, who convene in a pristine tent that appears to be smack in the middle of a beautiful English garden, are given the opportunity to practice their bakes ahead of the weekend’s round and an ample, if not quite luxurious, amount of time to complete the bake. Oh, and no insane surprises.

Hosts Mel and Sue are delightfully quirky; their witty encouragement and good-natured ribbing strikes just the right tone. Judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood (yes, those are their names) offer a perfect balance of praise and constructive criticism. Constructive is a keyword here; Paul and Mary do not judge by tearing the contestants down. Rather, they deliver criticism by simply pointing out the flaws in the bake and then they move on. That is not to say Mary and Paul are not tough, you can tell by the bakers’ reactions to praise from Paul that it is hugely satisfying when he affirms their efforts by complimenting the excellence of the bake.

A genuine group of folks, wouldn't you say?
What I love most about TGBBS is the fact that all those involved seem to genuinely wish the best for all the bakers. The bakers are happy for one another when the designation of Star Baker is granted and, in turn, are saddened when a fellow competitor must leave the tent. And Mel, Sue, Paul and Mary are thrilled when a baker who has had a difficult round bounces back with a successful bake. 

Quite a concept: presenting people being kind to one another. It’s not typical, but maybe it should be. The visuals of the scrumptious bakes are the icing on the cake. Jolly good indeed.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Space Race

Barren. Dusty. Red. What’s not to love? Mars has long held a special orbit in the solar system of my life. It began in elementary school when our class was tasked with developing a travel brochure for one of the (at that time) nine planets, and I jumped at the chance to convince imaginary travelers to visit the Martian planet. Day trips to Phobos and Deimos were involved, quite sophisticated for a nine year old. Then came Rocketman, the sidesplitting (again, at that time) movie starring Harland Williams that boasted one of the funniest fart scenes in my young pop culture life. Search YouTube for proof.

Recently viewing The Martian reignited my fascination with our neighboring planet. The Martian, based on the novel by Andy Weir, might fall short of perfect but it is a lot of fun. Matt Damon is very strong as botanist/astronaut Mark Watney, presumed dead after a Martian storm and left behind by his crew. Utilizing his scientific aptitude to figure out how to grow crops, maintain appropriate levels of water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide and, oh yeah, communicate with Earth to let someone know he’s alive, Damon balances the alternating emotions that come along with devastating solitude and the raw desire for survival. And despite the fact that The Martian’s supporting actors, playing his crewmates and NASA officials, seem to have collectively decided to play it monotone and dry, it is impossible not to root for them and for Watney to figure out how to solve each seemingly insurmountable problem. Weir's novel, by nature of format, contains significantly greater detail around the science of Watney's survival and I prefer the book ending to the movie ending, but I will let that lie so as not to spoil anything here. The book and movie are both worthy of a recommendation.

After seeing The Martian, I was driven to rewatch its' space disaster film cousins Apollo 13 and Gravity. After spending the night lamenting the demise of Tang, it became abundantly clear why these types of scenarios make great fodder for film. The lens through which most of us view these films is fantasy as most of us will never experience space travel. Sorry SpaceX, I’m just not counting on it any time soon. But because of humanity’s trips to orbit, to the moon, and the fact that there are astronauts living on the International Space Station, there is enough foundation in reality that the key element to these films is entirely relatable: that despite best laid plans, we can find ourselves losing control. But despite those odds, it is possible to overcome them. Be it a solitary effort a la Gravity or a team effort in the vein of Apollo 13, these triumphs are affirming in the best way. We are reminded that when pushed beyond our limit not only can we come out the other side, but we can come out stronger.