Review: Emma (2020)

Last night, my mom, sister, and I had a movie night.  Since we are all huge Jane Austen fans, we decided on Emma, which, even though the movie wouldn’t normally be out of its theater run, has been made available for streaming from various sources since theater-gathering is currently discouraged.

Emma is one of my favorite Jane Austens, largely because of the extremely cozy village she was able to create in Highbury and because Mr. Knightley definitely rivals Mr. Darcy in swoon-worthy gentlemanliness.  I have read and enjoyed the book, and this is the fourth film adaptation of  Emma I have seen, so I was coming into this with some rather pre-conceived ideas about what a successful adaptation of the story should look like.  So there you go: I always try to let you know my biases up-front.

There were things the 2020 adaptation did better than any of its predecessors.  For one, the cinematography is excellent.  The vistas and ballrooms are stunning, and I have heard that a lot of work went into choosing an appropriate and eye-catching color palette, which was a creative idea.  You leave with an impression of color in your mind’s eye, and take away beautiful and cheery lighting.  My only reservation was that, just occasionally, the color could be slightly too much, and you felt like we had strayed into candy land.  But that was only very occasionally, such as when there was a big fluffy cake sitting on the table or when we’re shopping for ribbons in a lollipop of color.  The outdoor scenes are unrivalled in beauty, though.

The costumes are exquisite, and I noticed particular attention was paid to the shoes.  You could tell the designers really looked at fashion plates from the Regency Era, because there is nothing (except maybe one pair of earrings) that jerks you out of the time period.  In addition, there are special details on the dresses, etc. that are very Regency-appropriate that I’m not sure I have ever seen any other Regency film use.  In short, 10 out of 10 stars for the costuming department.  My one question was whether Mr. Knightley would have worn his shirt collars quite so high.  Georgette Heyer has led me to believe that only dandies wore their collars so high that they had difficulty turning their heads.  But in contrast to being a dandy, Mr. Knightley always struck me as a country gentleman, a man of sport and the land, preferring to ride a horse to fancy dinner parties than take his carriage.  However, I do not profess to be an expert on the subject of all of the subsets of Regency gentlemen (dandies, Corinthians, fops, etc.) and Georgette Heyer is admittedly my only source.  And maybe my vision was clouded by the fact that this particular Mr. Knightley was ten times as handsome when we could glimpse his neck. 🙂

The next thing that was well-done was attention to historical details.  We get to see a lot of antiques and how they were used.  We see (humorously) the function of fire screens, and we also get to watch a very fun parlor game in progress.  Also revealing was the intimacy that dancing induced (I had forgotten that one was supposed to stare into one’s partner’s eyes).  It was a little easier after watching a dance performed in that way to understand why there were so many rules of etiquette surrounding the art of dancing, and why so many feathers were ruffled when the rules were broken.  I love when visual history explains something we wouldn’t otherwise understand!

The characters were also jazzed-up a little.  At first, I was a little nervous about the changes that I knew were going to be made to Mr. Woodhouse (Emma’s father) and Miss Bates.  But I would go anywhere Bill Nighy and Miranda Hart want to take me.  I cannot think of better or more trust-worthy choices if you are going to change up well-known characters.  And, while I am a stickler for following a book exactly, I actually didn’t mind these changes.  They weren’t drastic, and both were in keeping with the spirit of the characters.  If I’m being honest, I actually enjoyed these characters more than ever before because, in the real story, while we love them and appreciate their absurdities, they can be a little tedious.  Here, they were delightfully quirky and provided excellent comedic relief.  I like the idea of Emma’s father having all of his hypochondria while still being spunky, and maybe even a little wired.  I think that was a reasonable interpretation of his character, even though most have interpreted him as a more feeble old gentleman.  And when Miss Bates screams suddenly, and out of nowhere, at her deaf mother, that “Miss Woodhouse has invited us to Hartfield!!!” we were all in giggles.

And what to say about Mr. Knightley?  We see a lot more of his personal life than we ever do on the book, and than we ever have in any other adaptations.  We get to see him dressing, which was certainly a gift. 🙂  We also get to see the moment his feelings started to change for Emma and the agony that leads him to suffer over the next few months.  I think I actually like that, and here’s why: I believe they simply showed the emotions Jane Austen knew he was having but we don’t know about until the end of the book.  The scene where Emma and Knightley dance at Christmas is shown as the moment they both start to shift their feelings for one another, and I think that is accurate, at least for Mr. Knightley, although it has been a while since I’ve read the book.  But every other adaptation has made this attraction quite subtle.  Here, though, we see Knightley throw himself on his drawing room floor in frustration.  It’s not in the book.  But it actually made me understand a little more why Knightley invited his Highbury acquaintances to pick strawberries at Donwell soon thereafter, and why he said something about only allowing Mrs. Knightley to manage his house, once she is in being: he wants Emma in his house, and he is contemplating, for the first time, there being a Mrs. Knightley.  I had never thought about that aspect of his psychology, so that was a great hidden nugget.  On the whole, I liked Johnny Flynn’s interpretation of Knightley, even if I was initially thrown off by his blonde hair.  He handled the role quite delicately.

And that brings us to what I didn’t like so much.  I’m usually not this direct, but I will just have to be honest: I did not like this interpretation of Emma’s character.  Anya Taylor-Joy is lovely, and I like that her acting reminded us that Emma is only 21 and also showed how her wealth has left her in a spoiled cocoon.  Further than that I cannot say, because this interpretation made Emma absolutely unlikeable.  Jane Austen’s Emma is a deeply flawed character, and I love that about her.  But Austen was careful to give Emma redeeming qualities and a certain maturity that balances her over-confidence, privilege, and snobbery.  Here, she was drawn as petulant, which I don’t remember that Emma ever was.  While there was a certain immaturity to Emma’s course of action in the real plotline, she never acted like a simpering, pouting child.  While she could be sharp-tongued, and while that trait often led her into scrapes, she was never crabby/irritable just because she seemed to be that way by nature.  I’m not sure if the goal was to make Emma more coy, or what, but she actually lost almost all of the nuances to her character and was kind of boiled down into a one-dimensional incarnation of the snotty rich girl archetype.  Not my cup of tea.  And the main reason is that we cannot for the life of us see what Mr. Knightley sees in her.

Another thing that I was not a fan of was the overall production.  You really need to go into this adaptation with a basic knowledge of the intricacies of the plotline, because you won’t get them from watching this film.  It felt, actually, more like watching a play or, more accurately, perhaps, an opera.  A great deal of attention was put into theatricals, such as ladies lining up with the flourish of the background music, and overly-loud music accentuating the feeling we were supposed to get from the dialogue.  The music playing during scenes really distracted and took away from the storyline.  I just kept wishing we could settle in on a scene, like a real movie, and enjoy acting and character nuances instead of flitting here and there.  With music playing overly loud, and some of the actors being forced to deliver their lines overly-dramatically, you’re sped through the scenes and don’t get the details of a very intricate plot.  But what was really odd was that somewhere in the middle of the movie, we did slow down and take a breather, almost as though we had switched directors.  The music stopped being as frenzied, and we enjoyed a couple of stable scenes.  Which I found…odd.  I like consistency, even if I don’t agree with the choice made.  Without it, the production doesn’t feel polished/tight.

Another oddity was the choice in music itself.  I’ve already mentioned that it was often too jaunty and loud.  But even more bizarre was the choice to put in chorals here and there.  Don’t get me wrong: I love anything sung by a choir, and these were really beautiful.  They were just totally out of place.  I’m sure the songs were time-period-appropriate (although I would have to look on a couple), but the presentation was not (by this, I mean that the arrangements reminded me a lot of O Brother, Where Art Thou?).  It’s weird to be travelling in a carriage and just randomly start hearing a hymn sung dramatically by a choir, no?  At least, it was in Emma.

But in the end, there were enough things that I did like that I will probably watch it again.  The over-all grandeur and urgency being slightly hyped-up was very well-done, and very compelling as a viewer.  I found myself wishing that I was a master movie-maker and could pluck parts from all of the adaptations of Emma and make the perfect movie.  Which leads me to a ranking of the Emma adaptations that I have seen, which might be useful if you are wondering where to start.  I’ll rank from least-favorite to most-favorite.

4. Emma (1996) with Gwyneth Paltrow.  I have heard many people say this is their favorite, so know I am in the minority here.  But there is just something annoying about this version to me.  There’s also no chemistry between Knightley and Emma or any of the characters, really.

3.  Emma (2020). [Discussed above.]

2.  Emma Mini-Series (2009).   This is a 4-part mini-series that goes into great detail and follows the storyline pretty closely.  This Emma still annoys me slightly, but she is the least-offensive of the three I have mentioned.

1.   Emma (1997) with Kate Beckinsale.  This adaptation is phenomenal.  It is the reason, probably, that I’m so hard on all of the other adaptations.  I have watched it over and over and never leave disappointed.  I love the nuance Kate Beckinsale brings to Emma’s character.  She fully explores her flaws but shows all of the redeeming qualities, too.  I love the passion Mark Strong brings to Knightley’s character.  No one tells Emma off quite the way Mark Strong does.  He makes all of the other Knightleys look weak, with the exception of the most recent 2020 Mr. Knightley.  He shows Knightley’s hot temper but also his great kindness and depth of feeling.  And as far as the village feeling – there could be nothing cozier.  It accomplishes in one movie all that the above-mentioned mini-series attempts to do in four episodes.  The cinematography is not beautiful or sweeping, so I think that might be the reason this one is often overlooked.  But I promise you won’t notice that once the actors take the story into their hands.

In the end, it doesn’t matter which Emma is technically more accurate or delicately-handled, I suppose: it is which one you enjoy watching that matters.  I do recommend that you watch the new Emma.  It’s a great way to pass the time, and if you have enough people in your home quarantine, it’s actually cheaper than going to the movies would have been.  I streamed it for $20.00 from Amazon Prime.

Enjoy!

(Note: if you have children in the room, there is one little nudey scene where Knightley is dressing, and another slight one when Emma is, just to give you forewarning.)

Photo Credit: screenrant.com

-Tara

 

 

 

Review: Anne with an E

Review: Anne with an E

I should first confess that I am not a dedicated Anne of Green Gables groupie. I’ve never seen any of the adaptations before Netflix’s Anne with an E, and I haven’t read all of the books. I did read the first book when I was in Sixth Grade, but, unfortunately, its brilliance and subtleties were lost on me at that age. I am, however, quite familiar with the story, have a loose understanding of how the plot plays out, and have listened to The History Chicks Podcast episode on L.M. Montgomery (so that makes me an expert!). Okay, so that lets you know where I, a fairly neutral party, stand. (Note, I am going to give an honest critique, but keep reading, because I have lots of good things to say, too!)

I love any historical drama, so when Anne with an E popped up, I tried it, and I have since watched all three seasons. I know enough about the storyline to know that even the first season strayed from the books, but that didn’t bother me because it felt true to the spirit of them. I didn’t mind that the writers read between the lines and gave new dimensions to the story as long as they stayed grounded in the historical period and character of the books’ inspiration. For example, dealing with the trauma of being an orphan was great, and dealing with the prejudice Anne encountered as an orphan was really moving.

However, as we continued into the second season, we strayed from tackling the injustices of the historical era to using Anne with an E as a vehicle for the writer’s take on social/political issues of today. This is not a commentary on the issues that the writers chose, since this blog is strictly neutral on political matters. My concern, in any historical piece, whether it be film or literature, is accuracy, and accuracy becomes difficult to achieve when you place modern beliefs and mores on any historical era. You are playing with fire if you use a period drama for modern political purposes, especially if you are using someone else’s work. A writer wishing to forward his or her own causes (not an unworthy goal) should simply craft his or her own story, and not use the fame of a beloved classic as a vehicle for that goal. The parts where the writers strayed the most were, not surprisingly, the weakest segments because the stories didn’t resonate with historical truth. I have always found this to be the case in any historical book or film which paints with a modern brush. I should add that this wasn’t a mistake on the part of authors unacquainted with the historical era – they made this choice deliberately, as evidenced in the line of the opening song which says, “You’re ahead by a century!” So I am absolutely not accusing the writers of carelessness, just of using tactics which harmed the integrity of the show. Not only were current events tackled, but this was done in a heavy-handed way, which is a personal dislike of mine. I believe subtlety always wins the day.

There were so many times when I almost turned the T.V. off and said, “Done!” because historical accuracy is a make-or-break subject for me, and I tend to overlook a thousand good qualities if accuracy is not present. But I never could quite do that, because when the show shined, it really shined. Again, not surprisingly, this happened when it stayed true to the era and story. The absolute strength of the show was in the scenes with Anne and her friends, as they discover the wonders of becoming adults. Those parts rang so true and brought back so many happy memories. I absolutely loved watching those rites of passage into womanhood. It was beautifully nostalgic.

Anne (Amybeth McNulty) was a phenomenal actress. In fact, everyone was phenomenal. Some real standouts, though, were Marilla (Geraldine James), Matthew (R.H. Thomson), and Diana (Dalila Bela), who has my vote for Melanie if there is ever a remake of Gone with the Wind. But I could honestly go on and on about the cast. I loved the portrayal of Gilbert by Lucas Jade Zumann. Corinne Koslo’s portrayal of the snarky Rachel Lynde went a long way towards keeping the show grounded in the era. And Kyla Matthews, who plays Ruby Gillis, is also one to watch. You felt safe in the actors’ hands.

Not to be overlooked, also, were the costumes, which were beautiful (I was especially impressed with the men’s shirts this season, oddly enough!), and the scenery, which makes you kind of feel you are on vacation. The filming and production level were top notch.

And my thoughts on Season 3? More of the same: the straying from the spirit of Anne of Green Gables and the realities of the time period was overwhelming at first. Also, Anne became increasingly, screechingly militant, and I almost fell out with her when she screamed at Matthew (The Sweetest Person Ever) simply because he didn’t agree with her, which is what she did to anyone who didn’t immediately jump on board with her 21st Century beliefs. But then I reached Episode 5, which returned to the heart of the show: Anne and her friends as they come of age, and I loved it. And finally, as I watched Episode 10 (the final episode), and it reached its climax at the end, my heart soared, and I haven’t seen such good television since Matthew’s proposal to Mary in Downton Abbey (cue Downton music). It was absolutely fantastic! On the whole, I’m sorry to say goodbye to Anne with an E!

P.S. I really liked that the writers were interested in the historical fact that a lot of Indians/Native Americans/First Nations (Canada) experienced the unspeakable grief of having their children taken from them and put in Western schools, without their consent, in an attempt by the governments, to put it bluntly, to commit cultural genocide. I do not think this was actually covered in the original books, and I would submit that the story would have been more powerful in a different show (as it seemed to be a tack-on here), but I won’t complain because I think this is a part of history of which not many people are aware.

Until next time, Kindred Spirits and Bosom Friends!

-Tara

Review: John Adams

Looking for something cozy to watch on these warm summer nights? I can’t think of anything better than the series John Adams. Based off the biography which bears the same name by David McCullough, the series stays true to history and the characters and is just a delightful experience, spanning from the Boston Massacre to Adams’s July 4th death in 1826.

Adams is portrayed beautifully by Paul Giamatti, and Abigail is exquisitely brought to life by Laura Linney. I love the portrayal of Jefferson (Stephen Dillane), too, but the show-stealer was Tom Wilkinson’s Benjamin Franklin, whom you’d just love to have a cup of tea with.

The series takes you from the halls of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, to Paris, to the newly constructed White House. The scenery is beautiful, the attention to detail laudable. I cannot praise the cast or directors, all of whom had obviously intricately studied their subjects, enough.

The series won four Golden Globes and thirteen Emmys, which is apparently more than any other miniseries in history. It originally aired on HBO but is now available via Amazon Prime. Now go watch! You won’t regret it!

Death Comes to Pemberley

What can I say?  I hate books and movies that seek to ride in on the tailcoats of fame of authors who no longer have copyrights.  Besides being cheap writing, it usually makes for bad writing, the plot suffering from the confines of what has already been written, already imagined, by another brain, and inspiration, you know, usually comes easiest to the original author of the storyline and characters.

I probably wouldn’t be writing this, though if the book hadn’t achieved enough notoriety to be made into a movie, and it wouldn’t have achieved that without the word “Pemberley” in the title.

Do not look for a perfect re-drawing of Austen’s larger-than-life characters.  They, in fact, bear very little resemblance to them.  Mrs. Bennett, Lydia, and Lady Catherine are so over-drawn and afflicted with bad acting that you’ll just have to ignore them. Darcy and Elizabeth are very little like their characters, either in looks or personality.

So why am I writing this if I only intend to be ugly?

I don’t!

I have a suggestion: Pretend it bears no relation to Pride and Prejudice.  Before I did that, I almost couldn’t get through it.  Once I did it, I actually enjoyed it.  Imagine it’s a story about a young, wealthy, Regency couple, already married, happily, in a moment that crowds in on them filled with chaos.

The Darcy and Elizabeth aren’t bad, if you’re not trying to make them Darcy and Elizabeth (Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin).  In fact, they are good actors, portraying delicate emotions in their expressions without speaking, which is what we have come to expect from good British drama. Georgiana and Wickham (Eleanor Tomlinson and Matthew Goode) are great, too (and actually come closest to portraying their characters accurately).  The mystery itself is not terrible, with enough twists and drama to keep you halfway interested.

But the real value in this series is the portrayal of everyday Regency life, both for the wealthy and the not, when we flash away from the courtroom scenes.  Too often, we see the Regency damsel’s courtship, and then she rides off into the sunset with her duke.  We don’t see the ups and downs of actually becoming a married lady of rank, the responsibilities of being a patroness to many. We also don’t usually see the poverty in which many lived.

My sister commented while we were watching this, “Okay, how good would this have been if she had made up her own characters?!”  It would’ve removed all negative comments from this review, and I would have loved it.  But again, I never would’ve seen it at all probably, which could lead to some very scathing comments about the publishing and film industries, which I’m sure you’ll hear at a later date!

Currently available for purchase from Amazon.

Happy Galentine’s Day!

In honor of Galentine’s Day, and on the off-chance you’re staying in to watch movies with your gal-pal, we here at Tea and Rebellion thought we would give you a list of our favorite Rom-Coms and Rom-Drams (if that’s a thing?)  Tell us your favorites!

Romantic Comedies:
Leap Year
While You Were Sleeping
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
27 Dresses
Yours, Mine, and Ours
Enchanted
Bride Wars
Pretty in Pink
Bridget Jones’ Diary
Made of Honor
The Holiday
An Ideal Husband
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
The Wedding Planner
The Wedding Date
The Back-Up Plan
Notting Hill
The Proposal
Two Weeks’ Notice
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days
13 Going on 30
Beauty Shop
Never Been Kissed
Sweet Home Alabama

Romantic Dramas:
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
North and South
(British Version)
Persuasion (2007)
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre
(2011)
Under the Greenwood Tree
Emma
(1996)
Pearl Harbor
Belle
Dr. Thorne
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Far From the Madding Crowd
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
The Young Victoria
Gone with the Wind
Walk the Line
Under the Tuscan Sun
Sabrina
War and Peace
Downton Abbey
Little Women

Hope you enjoy!!

 

North and South

Ah, North and South.  Possible one of the greatest film adaptations we have yet seen in the 21st Century.  Airing on BBC in 2004, the mini-series stars Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage.  It was adapted from the novel by the same name published in 1855 by my girl Elizabeth Gaskell, of the Wives and Daughters and Cranford fame.  But North and South is nothing like either of those (great novels in their own right, don’t get me wrong).

It is HUGE: sweepingly grand, taking on sectional and class divides, gender issues, the Industrial Revolution, worker’s rights, death, nostalgia, human nature, and just plain old coming of age.  It is JAM-PACKED with goodies, but if literature bores you, fear not: it’s all so carefully drawn that the screenplay unfolds like your favorite novel. The filming is a work of art in historical accuracy (except Margaret’s eyebrows, sadly waxed).

I won’t talk much about the plot, because you need to watch it!  Suffice it to say, Margaret Hale leaves her idyllic home in the South of England to go north to the industrial town of Milton, where she encounters the harsh realities in the cotton mills of the Industrial Revolution.  One of the masters of the mills is Mr. Thornton, whom she originally hates, although he ultimately becomes her love interest.  The romance is subtly beautiful.  In fact, if I could find one word for the entire series, it would be subtle.

You saw, in my list of social issues above, how many conflicting points of view are at stake, but never once is Gaskell or the screenplay author heavy-handed.  In fact, we oscillate between thinking Margaret is right, and then Mr. Thornton, although we are never led there.  It is deeply, brutally honest in a way that nothing ever can be if you don’t take your own views off the table. Gaskell let things simply be as they were, challenging the norms of the Victorian Era without ever letting you know it, until you are already changed by truth.  It still resonates today, and Margaret Hale is an amazing female lead, even for today.  I can only imagine how moving it must have been in 1855.

Go watch it, if for no other reason than you need a romance fix.  You won’t be disappointed.  Currently available on Netflix.

-Tara

 

War and Peace

Le sigh.  Finally.

A relatively new period drama that is thought-provoking and intensely satisfying.  You may be familiar with Russian author Leo Tolstoy from his Nineteenth Century novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina.  This mini-series adapts the former into an eight-part sweeping drama, which was first broadcast on BBC One, and then in America simultaneously on A&E, Lifetime, and the History Channel as four two-hour episodes.

I remember when it first aired.  I got 2.5 episodes in and was engaged by the beautiful filming and good acting, but it wasn’t enough to counteract having to sit for two solid hours late at night and watch some morally questionable (truly shocking) things happen.  Now, I am a dork.  I was on Eastern time then, and this was pushing my bedtime far too late, and you basically have to be Downton Abbey to make that worth it for me.

But I had always regretted stopping it.  I couldn’t forget it and kept telling my sister about it in that annoyingly nostalgic way.  Then it popped up on Hulu (in doable 45 minute episodes), and I called it: we’re watching it.

Warning: there is a relationship so shocking at first that you’ll need to collect yourself for a few minutes.  Then again, some similar stuff happens in Genesis, so I guess we’re a namby pamby generation(?)  And there was something done by one of the characters (Andrei, played by James Norton) that made me wonder if I was going to like anybody.

But I’m happy to say that I was wrong.  War and Peace is a triumph.  You just have to watch until the third episode to see that.  Now initially, it was James Norton who brought me back.  His portrayal of the brooding and jaded Prince Andrei Bolkonsky was so well-done and different from any role I’ve seen him play that I was impressed.  I hadn’t realized his depth as an actor until War and Peace.

Now, James Norton is…rather attractive, and never more so than here (brunette works, James!).  But it was Paul Dano, who plays the initially feckless Count Bezukhov, or Pierre, who had me googling the morning after I finished the series.  He was a sensation.  I’ve not seen that level of fine acting and subtlety in a really long time.

We’re not supposed to fall in love with the un-hot Pierre, but we do.  It’s the most bizarre thing you’ve ever seen.  When it hits you that he’s the male lead, it’s like a ton of bricks.  To portray someone like Pierre (a sometimes dufus, sometimes deeply thoughtful individual, always lost, until he is found) in such a sensitive way was so far ahead of Tolstoy’s time that you instantly see why people rave about him as an author.

I won’t give away too much of the plot, but, basically, you follow five aristocratic families during a little less than a decade surrounding Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.  The series is a gem for its historical insights alone.  I mean, I didn’t know that Russia’s situation during the invasion was very comparable to the American South during the Civil War, did you?  I guess I had pictured all of Napoleon’s victims dancing in ballrooms like Almack’s with only a vague notion of what was happening “over there”.

But what truly stood out for me, and what seems so rare these days in British period drama, is that the characters did not deviate from their moral codes.  I’m not saying they were angels – most were NOT.  I’m saying there was never anything that happened that had me scratching my head and thinking another person had just invaded the character’s body a la Poldark.  Nothing was done purely for shock value.  Sometimes (often) you will be shocked, but after thinking for a moment, you’ll realize, “Oh, yeah.  That was in him all along.  I just didn’t see it.”  It is character exploration at its finest.  To be fair, it is precisely the kind of literature I like: thought-provoking, deep, a little romantic, honest, with serious events, deep feelings, bittersweet ending that still is sweet and gives a huge payoff.  It might not strike you the same, but hey, at least I can promise you won’t feel like you wasted your time.

Shout-out to Lily James, who plays the wistful Natasha Rostova.  But that really isn’t fair because the whole cast deserves endless accolades!

-Tara

The Great British Baking Show

What better place to start our reviews of movies of shows appropriate to pair with a warm cuppa than the mother of all cooking shows: known in the U.S. as the Great British Baking Show and in the U.K. as the Great British Bake-Off.

I am myself not much drawn to competitions in the kitchen, but this show was playing a few years ago before one of my Masterpiece Theater dramas (yes, I queue it up at least an hour early) (yes, it was Downton Abbey), and immediately there was something so very British about it that I was sucked in.

At first, it was the weird pastries, I’m not going to lie. Hitherto  my experience with British baking was limited to the incomprehensible descriptions of meals from the Regency novels I had read.  Cornish what?  Meat pie?  As in meat?  It’s fascinating, I tell you.  All of the little technical perfections that look incredibly unfinished to the American fondant enthusiast soon draw your admiration from the level of skill to the attention to detail.  If the best way to learn a culture is through its food, there’s no better place to start.

There’s no question they’ve got the formula right, too. They meet in a tent on the lawn of an old British manor, for heaven’s sake.  What am I supposed to do with that?  The American eye will be truly stunned by the quaintness of contestants sharing a refrigerator too small for the average home, and by the tiny oven and workspace they are given.  In America, I’m pretty sure every contestant would have their own tent, but it’s so quaint, I promise you, and the sparse supplies amp up the difficulty and competition (as is displayed by the great freezer drama of Season 5, a/k/a Bingate).

Yes, freezer drama is about as bad as it gets on the show.  The contestants are almost without exception lovely, are from all different cultures and backgrounds, and have even been known to help one another.  From the inimitable Paul Hollywood to the incomparable Mary Berry, the judges are just the kind of people that we want to repose our trust in.  Their knowledge is astounding, their snobbery humourous (oops, I just spelled that with a U!), and their decisions generally just.  In keeping with British tradition, there must be a fool to every drama, and our guides Mel and Sue have been cast perfectly.  They’re funny, goofy, comforting, and I just want them to be my friends, okay?

A word of caution: the British seasons run differently from the American, causing some confusion as to which season is next.  My advice: don’t worry too much about it: just watch whatever Netflix gives you.  The order matters but little.  Speaking of, apparently now the show will be produced by Netflix, with only Paul Hollywood returning, and a new Mary, Sue, and Mel.  I haven’t yet seen the new series, but I’ve heard good things.

I’ve got to run – the kettle’s boiling!

-Tara