To think, it’s been almost 20 years since the American version of I Love the 80’s hit the airwaves; in the course of pulling that there Wikipedia link, it came to my attention that the American version was based off of a British series of the same name that is even closer to crossing the two decade threshold (I want to be able to say with certainty that I had heard of the British version, but I can’t tell if that’s actually the case or if this is one of those situations where, upon having some gap in my knowledge filled, my brain is trying to trick me into thinking I had always known it).
In my capacity as an amateur pop culture historian, I found the series indispensable upon its premiere. I am just barely old enough to have cogent memories from the 80’s, but not even close to old enough to have cogent cultural memories of that time, unless we’re counting Sesame Street parodies. (Shout-outs to both Cereal Girl and Miami Mice.)
But, since almost none of the decade’s piles of cultural dross were all that old by the time my brain was formed enough for what culture I did absorb to stick (here I tempted to delve into the depraved game show rerun addiction I suffered from the ages of approximately 4 to 9, but since this intro is already veering dangerously off-topic I’ll spare everyone), and since the acknowledged classics of the decade never went away in the first place, my brain was always 80’s-addled, and I Love the 80’s helped contextualize all this stuff I had been aware since, well, always, and therefore served as a revelation.
In the time since, which it’s worth repeating has been nearly two entire decades, nostalgia for the 80’s seems to have only increased, and with it the now ubiquitous demand for nostalgia itself. I’m not sure how I feel about this. There’s nothing all that wrong with nostalgia in a vacuum, but there have been times in the last decade or so when almost every movie, TV show, and music release (I’m old enough that I’m inclined to use the term ‘album’ here as a default catch-all, but the album-centric model of new music releases is extremely dead) has felt like some sort of throwback.
I say this without judgment. After all, I opened this column by waxing nostalgic about a TV series dedicated to waxing nostalgic, thus creating a dread ouroboros of “Hey, remember that one thing” and possibly inflicting irreparable brain damage on myself and others in the process. But, as someone who likes The Empire Strikes Back as much as the next nerd, there’s something that really fucks me up about nostalgia for the 80’s, specifically.
The 80’s were, without question, a deeply fucked up time in a way that 80’s nostalgia is all too eager to smooth over, if not openly celebrate. The Reagan and Thatcher administrations kicked off the US and UK’s respective slides into late stage capitalism which have continued essentially unabated since. Unions were gutted and rendered toothless on both sides of the pond, with dire consequences for the working classes that are nowhere close to being corrected.
This is to say nothing of Reagan’s ghastly and horrific foreign policy, which came to the immediately horrifying conclusion that saber-rattling between nuclear superpowers was a good idea, somehow. This is an addition to the endless proxy wars in Central and South America, as well as Afghanistan; one needn’t look any further than US intervention in the Soviet-Afghan war to find the most ghastly limits pf “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic. Unfortunately, I am ignorant as to the specifics of Thatcher’s foreign policy, but I can only imagine it was just as bad.
All of this was awful! There is a clear historical line that can be drawn from the Reagan administration’s actions to the rise of Newt Gingrich, 9/11, the War on Terror, the 2008 economic crash, the rise of Mitch McConnell, and Trump’s election, largely because there are demoralizingly vast swaths of white Americans who think that the 80’s were the best time ever, goddammit, and why don’t you fuck right off to Russia if you think otherwise.
Nostalgia, being by definition concerned only with glorifying the good times, has no way to deal with this colossally fucked legacy; it is, therefore, cultural memory without actual history. Hence, most of the 80’s nostalgia industrial complex is doomed either to paper over these horrors or glorify them, which is marginally irresponsible at best, ghoulish at worst.
There are times when the sway of 80’s nostalgia makes me wonder if perhaps I missed out on something by not being of age to enjoy the party the decade is invariably presented as, but the reality is I’m not sure my mental health could have possibly survived living through the decade as an adult. I’m entirely too afraid of nuclear war now, and I can’t imagine the ruination US foreign policy of the time would wreak on my psyche. Combined with the additional psychic terror of watching Reagan gut organized labor like a fish in real time, and I am inevitably drawn to the conclusion that attempting to live through the 80’s would have been entirely too much for me to handle.
This is to say nothing of enduring the lesser domestic nightmares of the decade – continuing white flight, the emergence of HIV and AIDS, the brutal continuation and escalation of the war on drugs and the mass incarceration that goes with it, the rise of televangelism (which still very much exists but is typically quite easy to avoid; I can only assume that wasn’t as much the case when the monoculture still existed), and an endless and endlessly stupid labyrinth of moral panics. Each one of these would have been awful enough on its own. And, for what it’s worth, nose beers really aren’t my thing, either.
You get the idea. I get being super into Purple Rain and Back to the Future, but taken as a whole, the 80’s weren’t just a nightmare, they were a nightmare that directly led to or current dystopia.
This may seem like a setup to some broader condemnation of the Great British Baking Show’s decision to lean into 80’s nostalgia, but I swear, it’s really not. 80’s nostalgia is a such a salient feature of the culture at large that I can’t really begrudge anyone for indulging in it; when it appears, and appears in a sphere that falls under the purview of this blog, I am compelled to contextualize it because I am compelled to contextualize everything. And, like I said, I’m prone to nostalgia myself, and consider it mostly harmless. And hell, throwing it back to the 1920’s uncritically is almost certainly worse from the perspective of historical responsibility, and I gave that a pass.
So no, I’m not bothered by the idea of an 80’s Week in the Tent. I am, however, confused. I share Lottie’s impression of the 80’s being a time when convenience food ruled the day, one that left no culinary trends worth celebrating. I would never be so arrogant as to make actual guesses as to what the Technical Challenge is going to be in a given week, but part of me truly believed that for 80’s Week, it would have to be Swiss Cake Rolls. Not real Swiss rolls, mind you, but the ones that are tiny and come in cellophane-wrapped packs of two. Everything I understand about food back then tends toward the childish and disreputable. This makes a lot of sense; all the adults back then were strung out from hitting the slopes on the reg, and that’s known to suppress the appetite.
What I am bothered by is the apparent lack of air conditioning in the Tent. At multiple points in the episode, it was made abundantly clear that it was entirely too goddamn hot outside, and that the heat had potentially dire consequences for the creation of all three bakes. Surely, if there’s money in the budget for the green screen needed to pull off a goofy E.T. gag, there’s money in the budget to air condition a tent, even an unweatherized one. The impact the heat had on the stress level this week was too large to ignore, particularly in the Show Stopper, making this the most stressful episode since Cake Week all the way back at the start of the season.
With yet another somewhat surprising Elimination in this season’s books, this week’s Rankings are all over the place. I’ll be getting into the particulars of this further along, but suffice to say I’ve just about given up entirely on trying to divine Paul and Prue’s decision-making process. This isn’t a problem for the quality of the show itself, but it makes my job as a Tent Ranker immeasurably more difficult. I am now terrified of hitching my wagon to any particular baker because too many of my feeble attempts at predicting this season have been rendered laughably foolish as soon as I’ve made them in public.
Only one episode remains before the Semifinals, and if you’re the sort of person who countenances the idea of a Quarterfinals (for the record, I’m agnostic on this; whether or not the eighth episode of each GBBS season counts as the playoffs is too much hair-splitting even for me, and I love splitting hairs like I love cake), then we’re already at the door of the playoffs. Shit is getting real.
Week 7 – 1980’s Week
Signature Challenge: 8 Individual Quiches
Recipe: 6 Custard & Jam Finger Doughnuts
Parameters: Golden brown outside, uniform shape
Did Anyone Succeed? Hermine and Peter
Show Stopper: Ice Cream Cake
Star Baker: Hermine
Last Week: 2nd Change: -4
Place in Technical: 5th
To hold an opinion in 2020 with any degree of epistemic responsibility is to acknowledge that, at its core, that opinion isn’t really informed by much of anything, at all. In holding it, one has simply decided that it must be true (or at least, true to them), and that is all that really matters. The broader consequences for epistemology at the societal level have been dire indeed, as belief has become insulated from fact, generally. This is bad enough when it comes to idiot anti-mask COVID-truther motherfuckers, but it’s a thousand times worse – because it’s happening to me, personally – when it comes to ranking bakers in the Tent. All the way back in Cake Week, I more or less made up my mind that Lottie was one of the better bakers in this Tent. Since I am now reduced to openly admitting I have no idea what’s up with this season and therefore have no idea what to expect, I leaned on placing Lottie relatively high based on that initial impression, when her track record was obviously spottier than my enthusiasm warranted. I suppose I just wanted to support a fellow metalhead. Last week, I bumped her all the way back to #2 on this list, even though she only survived Pastry Week by the slimmest of margins. This week, my hubris in doing so was punished; Lottie’s hubris, in deciding to try and encase her Show Stopper in a thin layer of ice cream, was punished similarly. It’s a real shame, because her idea of a cassette tape design was a pretty neat idea, although it’s worth noting that it was also the most ambitious design choice, by far. Everyone else just made a cake, you know?I’m not sure what to make of the judges’ comments on the flavor; Prue seemed to like it, Paul not so much.
Last Week: 6th Change: +1
Place in Technical: 4th
I’m way behind schedule this week, so I’m not gonna bother going back to count how many times this has happened, but it sure seems like Laura has held the second-to-last position in these Rankings more of ten than not, as a result of my low confidence. And here we are, seven weeks in, and Laura is still hanging around and seemingly doing so only just barely more than half the time, save her Star Baker turn a couple weeks ago. I was tempted to place her all the way at the top of the Rankings this week, simply because I no longer have any idea how badly she would need to fuck up to actually get sent home. Her knowledge of the fundamentals has been the shakiest in the Tent since Rowan was around. At the risk of reading too much into the Signature, her leaky quiches are the sort of basic error that, particularly this late in the season, would get a baker roasted alive in years past. She also forgot to set her ice cream maker to freeze for a good long while during the Show Stopper, which I thought spelled curtains at the time. I know I’m piling on here, and I feel bad because she seems nice, but the other bakers simply aren’t making these kinds of mistakes. What has been clear this whole time, however, is that almost all of her bakes taste amazing, standing out even among a crop of bakers that rarely falters, flavor-wise. Also, as someone whose favorite Ben & Jerry’s flavor is Half Baked, I want to take this opportunity to call out Paul for his one-dimensional understanding of the point of brownies. You can freeze them, it’s fine, you big fucking baby.
Last Week: 3rd Change: -1
Place in Technical: 6th
The dirty secret of this show is that, while it lured a lot of us in by avoiding the douchier editing tropes of American reality shows, it is nonetheless stuffed to the gills with a variety of cutting room sleight-of-hand techniques, and always has been. These are tastefully done, by and large, and not the sort of thing one tends to notice unless tasked with crafting increasingly arbitrary rankings of each baker’s perceived skill level. The dirty secret of these Rankings is that, while you would maybe think that as the size of the Tent diminishes, the amount of time in each episode dedicated to judges’ comments would increase, and it really, truly doesn’t. The surplus time is given almost exclusively to more footage of the bakers at work, particularly during the Show Stopper. This is all well and good as these things go, but it makes the task of devising the Rankings harder and harder each week. Not only does a close viewing of each episode reveal the ways in which the judges’ comments are chopped up like a cheesesteak, a lot of times the comments we do see aren’t much more substantive than “this bake is good” or “this is under baked”, etc. Taken together, these form two of the heads of the hydra of judging inscrutability, often leaving me with little to do with each baker’s write-up than rephrase a handful of pithy remarks. This week, Dave’s bakes didn’t receive a ton of comments. I know his Signature wasn’t all that good and that his Show Stopper was good enough to pull him out of danger, but even after taking notes on the episode, I’m not sure I know why, exactly. I suppose it doesn’t matter a ton; we all know what Dave is capable of, for good or for ill, and since I’m running on about three hours of sleep and powering through three more write-ups isn’t about to get any easier, let’s move on, how bout it?
Last Week: 5th Change: +2
Place in Technical: 3rd
And to think, all the way back in Cake Week I was figuring that Marc skated through undeservedly, and here he is, peaking at the right time. I still stand by that, by the way – it sure seemed to me as though Loriea got Eliminated for the wrong reasons – but I can no longer deny that Marc has made good. For much of the first half of the season, a lot of Marc’s bakes, while perfectly acceptable, were obviously flawed. Sometimes they were under baked, sometimes they were a bit bland, and sometimes the decoration was sloppy. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Marc has left all of those problems behind, but they have become less and less glaring over the past two weeks. His Signature was flawless save for Prue’s comment that his two quiche flavors were too similar. That’s some hardcore hair-splitting, there. His Show Stopper was the most ambitiously designed that was also built to specs, and received high marks for complexity of flavor, even though his honey ice cream maybe didn’t 100% completely set, I guess? It was a clear triumph, regardless. That Marc is tied for biggest jump in the Rankings this week has me deeply concerned for his long-term survival. It’s sure felt like hitching my wagon to a particular baker is an omen of that baker’s impeding doom this season. The good news is that, even if Marc finds himself Eliminated just shy of the Semis, he has a lot of improvement to be proud of.
Last Week: 4th Change: +2
Place in Technical: 1st
The high level that everyone has been operating at this season has made it a season of parity, as the even distribution of Star Baker awards makes plain. No one has so much as won Star Baker twice, let alone gone on the sort of all-time run that Steph had last year. This week, Hermine’s long-standing excellence was rewarded as she became the last baker left in the Tent to win top honors, and it was more than deserved. Hermine’s showing here enters the conversation for best overall performance of the season, joining Dave’s star turn in Biscuit Week and…well, nothing else, really. Even signs of a slightly under baked crust in the Signature seemed a meaningless criticism once the judges cut into her quiches; the pastry texture was nonetheless excellent, and the fillings, oh my, the fillings! To contemplate them makes me hungry, although here I must point out, as douchey and slouching towards “well, actually” guy-ism as it may be to do so (I wasn’t on hand to taste them, after all), that the camera showed Hermine emptying her shiitakes into her saute pan, and I must say she is crowding the shit out of the poor things. Clearly she made it work, but my understanding, both from instruction and experience, is that you’re not supposed to to that. Anyway, Hermine’s Show Stopper also silenced my lingering concerns about her tendency toward messy decorations, and the bake and flavor were obviously the business. I’m even more nervous about Hermine than Marc, since she is also tied for biggest jump in the Rankings this week, and for all her skill she has landed in trouble a couple of times. In a less insane season, I would consider her a lock for the Finals; but in this season (which is not the season we need, but the season we deserve…sorry, I couldn’t resist), I wouldn’t dare do so without knocking on all the wood in the house first.
Last Week: 1st Change: 0
Place in Technical: 2nd
And here’s Peter, coming off yet another performance that was hyper-competent as always, but also didn’t get him into Star Baker consideration despite this. Prue has always projected a modern attitude to flavor that her predecessor Mary Berry uh…did not, but her I must drag her straight to boring British cuisine hell for griping while judging Peter’s Signature that crab can’t stand up to hot chili flavors, and that therefore combining the two is a bad idea. Spicy crab soup is motherfucking delicious; the next time we’re allowed to go anywhere, we should all consider hopping on a jet to Hanoi for some Bun Reiu so that we can cackle like lunatics at Prue’s ignorance while simultaneously and frantically scrounge around the ground for needles, that we may enjoy the spicy deliciousness intravenously. Where was I? Ah yes, Peter. I guess he put too much fruit in his ice cream cake sponge which, uh…sure. Peter hasn’t knocked it out of the park in a few weeks, really, but he stays in the catbird seat for yet another week because he’s the baker least prone to getting into trouble. The only time he even theoretically faced Elimination was in Bread Week, which was not only a long time ago, but I also didn’t buy that he was in real danger at the time. Everyone else has been in actual trouble, and also been in actual trouble more than once. As such, Peter’s week-to-week performance is the only semblance of stability in these (oh fuck oh jesus oh don’t you fucking dare) unprecedented times (ASSHOLE~!). That’s good enough for me.
Next Week: I crack into whatever new Nintendo Switch game my parents got me for my birthday, and which sits unwrapped a scant 6 feet away as I type this – Thanks Mom and Dad! Oh, and more GBBS Rankings, also.
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