Sunday, February 01, 2015

For Super Sunday, one last game note and one last alternative-programming suggestion


Have you been watching The Great British Baking Show on PBS? Today Episode 5, "Pies and Tarts," airs (or aired) in most locations.

by Ken

Okay, Bob, makes sense
This afternoon about I happened, totally inadvertently, to land on NBC's pregame coverage. It was still about four hours before game time, so that would put it at about our 13 of the pregame festivities. And I paused to listen to Bob Costas talk about the possibility that in this day and age it is still possible under the rules for a Super Bowl that goes into overtime to end with the team that wins the extra-period coin flip to score and win the game without the other team touching the ball -- the game thereby being decided by the coin flip. This isn't good, Bob said, and it's hard to disagree. He proposed that the overtime rules be changed, just for the post-season, to provide for a succession of ten-minute periods, as many as are necessary for the game to end with a clear winner.

Obviously, as Bob pointed out, it's too late to do anything about Super Bowl XLIX, but there's plenty of time to fix this for Super Bowl L. Well, okay, I thought, that makes sense. And as I made my escape, I wondered if that might not be the high point of the Super Sunday festivities. That or maybe the commercials. I know a lot of people watch the game just, or mostly, for the commercials. Which would be fine except that most of the commercials suck too. You have to hand it to the NFL marketing team. Making a big annual production out of the things that your customers are paying you -- through the nose -- to show and you're forcing your viewers to watch! There are several life lessons buried in there, none of them encouraging.

In my never-ending spirit of public service, I've been trying to come up with an angle that might lend the game itself some actual football interest. Of course there's always the possibility that it might be a good game. It has happened. Not often, but it has happened. Still, nobody can control that part of it, and we don't want to leave the thing to chance.

No doubt there's some interest in the fact that Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is matched up against the team, and indeed the owner, that fired him after three decreasingly successful seasons, 1997-99, a decision that owner Bob Kraft has said was one of the hardest he'd made. Carroll's replacement was none other than -- Bill Belichick! That was Pete's last NFL job until his 2010 return with the Seahawks, following his shaky-starting but ultimately triumphant run with the USC Trojans -- triumphant, that is, if you don't count the small matter of the Reggie Bush recruiting violations, which led to the NCAA's retroactive giant smackdown, in the process undoing a good deal of what Pete did at USC. You could say that he got out of town just in time. And now here he is in Seattle as the defending Super Bowl champ.

Okay, that's something. But it doesn't pack all that much drama. I'm thinking that the gut-level connection here is the grudge match between two former NY Jets head coaches from the Jets' now-decades-long Era of Despond.

I know people complain that I spend an inordinate amount of time making fun of Washington Redskins buffoon-owner Daniel Snyder, considering that my hometown New York Jets have been showcasing managerial buffoonishness for as back as the normally burdened mind can encompass. But Jets fans are used to it by now, and really don't know any other way. More importantly, I don't see why this has to be an either-or situation -- ridiculing either the Redskins' ownership or the Jets'? Isn't it possible to ridicule both?

I've already called attention to the bizarre episode of Belichick's almost-seconds-long tenure with the J-E-T-S Jets, which remains for me one of the strangest episodes in the annals of professional sports. Here again is Wikipedia's summary:
Belichick had two different stints as Head Coach of the Jets without ever coaching a game.

In February 1997, Belichick, who had been an assistant coach under Bill Parcells with the New York Giants and New England Patriots, was named the Jets interim Head Coach while the Jets and Patriots continued to negotiate compensation to release Parcells from his contract with Patriots and allow Parcells to coach the Jets.[10] Six days later, the Patriots and Jets reached an agreement that allowed Parcells to coach the Jets and Belichick became the team's assistant head coach and defensive coordinator.[11] When Parcells stepped down as head coach in 1999, he had already arranged with team management to have Belichick succeed him. However, Belichick would be the New York Jets' head coach for only one day. When Belichick was introduced as head coach to the media—the day after his hiring was publicized—he turned it into a surprise-resignation announcement. Before taking the podium, he scrawled a resignation note on a sheet of loose leaf paper that read, in its entirety, "I resign as HC of the NYJ." He then delivered a half-hour speech explaining his resignation to the assembled press corps.[12]

Soon after this bizarre turn of events, he was introduced as the Patriots' 12th full-time head coach, succeeding the recently fired Pete Carroll. The Patriots had tried to hire him away from Parcells/the Jets in the past. Parcells and the Jets claimed that Belichick was still under contract to the Jets, and demanded compensation from the Patriots. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue agreed, and the Patriots gave the Jets a first-round draft pick in 2000 in exchange for the right to hire Belichick.[13]
Pete's Jets career was a good deal less strange. Here's Wikipedia again:
His success [as defensive backs coach] with the Vikings led to his hiring by the New York Jets, where he served as defensive coordinator under Bruce Coslet for four seasons (1990–93). When there was an opening for the Vikings' head coach position in 1992, he was a serious candidate but lost the position, again to Green.[8]

In 1994, Carroll was elevated to head coach of the Jets. Known for energy and youthful enthusiasm, Carroll painted a basketball court in the parking lot of the team's practice facility where he and his assistant coaches regularly played three-on-three games during their spare time.[11] The Jets got off to a 6–5 start under Carroll, but in week 12, he was the victim of Dan Marino's "clock play"—a fake spike that became a Miami Dolphins game-winning touchdown. The Jets lost all of their remaining games to finish 6–10. He was fired after one season.[11][12]
Considering the levels of futility at which more recent Jets coaches have managed to hold on to their jobs, a single 6-10 season and out seems a trifle harsh. Then again, there's that late-season fold that happened again in New England, and it could be that both the Jets' and Pats' ax-wielders had it right. Clearly the Pete Carroll who built the Seahawks into the solidly competitive team they are today isn't the same coach who cut such an appealingly earnest young figure only to bomb out of his first two NFL head-coaching jobs.


At the starting gate: The 12 original Great British Baking Show contestants

I've already called attention to TBS's Law and Order Super Sunday marathon. Alternatively, depending on where you live, you may still be able to check out PBS's offering of what it's calling The Great British Baking Show, a runaway hit on British TV as The Great British Bake Off. (That name couldn't be used here because of trademark restrictions.) If I've got the schedule right, today they're at Week 5 of a 12-week run, and in some places today's episode hasn't aired as of the time this post goes up. Here in NYC, I gather WNET is airing the show Sundays at 4pm. (DVR-equipped Gothamites take note: There's a repeat airing Tuesday morning at 4am.) However, in the D.C. area, where Bonnie S. Benwick has just been extolling the show's virtues ("'The Great British Baking Show’ on PBS: Food Network, take note."), it airs on WETA at 8pm. As the prophets say, check your local listings.

I haven't seen the show myself, but it should be possible to catch up with most if not all of it online. (On the WNET website, I see, as of this moment you can watch Episodes 2-5.) Bonnie Benwick casts her piece in the form of a letter to Food Network; regular readers may recall that I have been transformed from a TVFNaholic to a Food Network hater, now that its motto has become "Sure, our programming eats toxic sludge, but you barfbrains are watching it, aren't you?" So I'm pleased to see that Bonnie has some nicely nasty things to say about Food Network. Here's what she has to say about the show:
Dear Food Network,

Loving the new baking show — on PBS. Even those of us who would rather pluck a bucketful of fresh thyme leaves than watch competitive cooking on television are, in a word, enchanted. We are eating up every episode of “The Great British Baking Show,” nee “The Great British Bake Off,” whose last-season finale drew more than 13 million U.K. viewers, a 50 percent audience share.

Want to know why? Here’s hoping you do. It’s partly about culinary education, but mostly about authenticity.

As in, contestants are allowed to be real, not presented as archetypes. Everybody’s civil, respectful, even — judges and funny hosts, too. We get the impression they’re all mates who like to share a pint at the pub. In fact, the amateur bakers did just that, each week, before the cameras began rolling.

“We don’t like editing people to look mean,” says British food writer and former BBC producer Diana Henry.

Contrast that with American reality TV. Here, said PBS chief programming executive Beth Hoppe, “we cast for LOUD” (with the exception of PBS).


The show tests the skills of 12 home bakers over the course of 10 weeks, as they all perform in a specially outfitted tent on the grounds of a manor house in county Berkshire; we see black lambs gamboling between action shots. Men and women, teens and sexagenarians, shire-born and immigrants are vying for the title of top baker. They have regular lives and jobs. They practice at home during the week, based on a list of broad categories provided by the show, and spend 10-hour weekend days on the set. Each episode comprises three types of “bakes,” and a star baker is crowned.

Judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry
and hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc

The competition doesn’t lack for drama. It’s writ small, though, like in a home kitchen (with the exception of Iain Watters’s BakedAlaskaGate). [Hint: You definitely want to check out the BakedAlaskaGate link. It's a pip. -- Ed.] Cakes crack, fillings ooze. Thanks to a spot-on production crew, we get to see those moments, plus the kind of second-guessing and oven anxiety we’re prone to ourselves. When contestants are chuffed, we surrender to Anglophilia. When an effort falls short, judgment is delivered with kindness and understanding.

Sometimes judges Mary Berry, something of a national culinary institution, and celebrity baker Paul Hollywood throw a spanner into the works, but the challenge is reasonable: The baking time or oven temperature might be omitted from the directions, and the bakers manage based on their experience. The lesson to be gleaned from crafting a “Chopped” main course from, say, fish heads, peanut brittle and lime gelatin seems less significant, in comparison.

Lincolnshire grandmother Nancy Birtwhistle has a homespun contraption to aerate her fennel and rye crackers. Must try that. North London builder Richard Burr’s chocolate fondants are perfectly proportioned and executed, prompting Berry to pipe up, “Now that’s what I call a sauced pudding!” Enwezor Nzegwu, a business consultant from Portsmouth, alas, is gone too soon. But there will be no clawing his way back into the competition through cutthroat capers.

And now we know from sauced puds, Victoria sponges, Swiss rolls. To U.K. viewers and expats, it’s the stuff of memory and tradition. For America, it’s a window on the world of the baked goods Brits hold dear. “When I grew up, you were supposed to be able to be good at an eggy sponge, a light cake,” says food writer Henry. “It’s in the DNA here.”

The production crew seems to capture the technique involved in every step along the way, for each baker. Those comparisons offers much insight, really, into how home bakers perform similar feats and achieve different results.

We have long looked to public television for helpful cooking instruction. (Cue “The French Chef” theme music.) “GBBO,” as the Twitter hashtaggers call it, proves that the format can offer genuine entertainment as well. Hoppe says she tried to acquire the British series a couple of years ago but was outbid by CBS, which effectively took “GBBO” off the table so it could develop and air 2013’s “The American Baking Competition.” (That judge-host combo didn’t work so well, and poor ratings canceled the show.)

When “GBBO” became available again, “it had gone bonkers in the U.K., along the magnitude of ‘Downton Abbey,’ ” Hoppe says. So she brought it to PBS and promises we’ll see the next season as well. U.S. viewership thus far stands at 2.5 million, for a network whose prime-time average is about 1 million viewers.

Yeah, Food Network, your ratings are up around that number on Sunday nights. But some of us have been turning the sound down for years.

And what does the last baker left standing on “GBBO” get? Neither prize money nor a Ford truck nor his or her own show that will wind up in a desperate time slot. The winner receives an engraved cake plate.

What fame brings ’round afterward has gotten formulaic, even in Great Britain. Media coverage of contestants’ home kitchens and cookbook deals are common; Richard Burr this week is putting the finishing touches on his collection of 78 recipes, a project that took him away from work for two months. He has 30K Twitter followers.

“Third of February, I’m fitting kitchens again,” Burr says. “But it’s been nice getting messages from a lot of men who bake. It makes me happy for fellas to go and make a mess in the kitchen.”

P.S., Food Network: Can you forward this to your buddies at Bravo?

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