We all, if we have taken the necessary precautions, are like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man in 2020. Life goes on, but now life includes a more apparent deconstruction of society and its flaws.
As holidays careen toward us during a year where blinking is equivalent to falling into a coma, a nice way to prepare for the festivities is baking. Whether you make gingerbread cookies, latkes, or Nankhatai cookies, baking memorable treats is universal closing out the year. Thanks to Channel 4 across the pond, as they say, we get to enjoy countless people over the years partaking in elite baking. What better way to celebrate the holiday than watching the most polite cooking competition?
The Great British Bake Off
The Great British Bake Off (aka The Great British Baking Show, but the former name is cooler) originally airs on Channel 4 then becomes available on Netflix for us indulgent Americans to view. Each week the contestants partake in three challenges: the Signature, the Technical, and the Showstopper. Each round two judges, Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood (we’ll dive into him later), review each baker’s work. At the end of the episode, somebody is sent home until the final three battle for the championship. The program became quite the phenomenon thanks to its extravagant bakes, gothic king host Noel Fielding, and fresh pace to competitive cooking.
While on the surface The Great British Bake Off is simply a baking competition, I am making the bold claim that the popular show reflects Dostoyevsky themes. Maybe I just wanted to talk about Noel Fielding and Paul Hollywood, but who wouldn’t? After some reflection, I realized several themes I have touched on, researched, and read about relate to The Great British Bake Off. Dostoyevsky may touch on dark, psychological subjects, but the bakers inside the tent are no exception to some of the Russian author’s most popular themes.
The aforementioned tent is where the bakers compete to become the greatest baker. Consisting of several islands with ovens, proofing drawers, stovetops, sinks, etc., the tent has everything at the bakers’ disposal to create the most breathtaking bakes. In years prior, the bakers could go home after each episode to practice their next signatures and showstoppers, visit family, and sleep in their own bed. Unfortunately, due to the global pandemic, this year the bakers and crew sequestered at the location housing the tent in order to complete filming for the 2020 season. Now contestants are isolated away from their family, unless it is necessary for them to join, and the rest of the country during their stay at the tent.
Isolation is Dostoyevsky novels, in a broader sense, surrounds around characters isolating themselves spiritually, physically, or both for some specific reason. Sometimes it involves religion, and other times it involves society. Nevertheless, characters often isolate themselves with a goal they justify. The bakers in Bake Off do the same. While many bakers around the world enjoy the activity, little would endure the tough isolation these bakers do. The isolation is absurd to some, but the contestants justify their decision to isolate with the possibility of becoming the greatest amateur baker in the country.
Corona and Dostoyevsky
In Notes from the Underground, the Underground Man isolates himself from society and analyzes its characteristics. During a time where everyone is meant to isolate themselves, it is easy to identify with the Underground Man. While the bakers in Bake Off do not necessarily spend their time this season pondering the state of the world, they are nonetheless isolated away from everyone like many others around the world. Real life, Bake Off, and Dostoyevsky easily clashed during 2020 in bizarre circumstances that quite possibly may never happen again. Who would have thought reality, a reality show, and an author writing over 100 years ago could be easily compared?
Especially with how humans have behaved this year in regards to the pandemic but also many other horrific events, those isolated have all the time in the world to pull apart everyone else and judge their decisions. Perhaps the extended isolation causes people to do so. We all, if we have taken the necessary precautions, are like the Underground Man in 2020. Life goes on, but now life includes a more apparent deconstruction of society and its flaws.
In a more specific sense, the Underground Man in Notes from the Underground isolates himself because his awkward encounters with society force him to. There is significant depth to his isolation, but one aspect involves his embarrassment and self-consciousness around others. 2018 contestant Rahul Mandul shares these specific characteristics to the Underground Man. On one hand, Rahul does not appear to despise society or go on long, dark rants, but his overwhelming feeling of embarrassment permeates through the television screen. Rahul is one of the greatest bakers in Bake Off history. Each week he topped himself from the previous week, and it paid off for him in the end. Despite the constant success, each challenge he doubted himself during the baking. He would look at others and think himself as inferior. During judging, pain and humiliation contorted his face as the judges dissected his bakes. Rahul would even go as far as apologizing to the judges after they complimented him. Many times, host Noel Fielding checked in on Rahul during baking, and Rahul offered a quip regarding his awkwardness and even deteriorating mindset.
Dostoyevsky’s novels often dive deep into its characters’ minds. He analyzes the deepest and darkest depths. Dostoyevsky studies each specific character and his psychology and actions. In Notes from the Underground, it is the Underground Man. In Crime and Punishment, it’s Raskolnikov. Thematically, Dostoyevsky often analyzes human nature in a bigger picture. What is the ideal human being? How do humans interact with each other in the real world? How do they in the perfect world? Oftentimes Dostoyevsky states that humans treat each other poorly in the real world with priority going to money and power. He hopes religion and good nature will push humans forward.
Contestants on Bake Off may be humans Dostoyevsky yearns for, at least to an American audience. In America, cooking game shows like Hell’s Kitchen and Cutthroat Kitchen feature contestants only caring about themselves, judges screaming, and chaotic editing. Viewers’ pulses spike due to the intensity of the show’s framing. In Bake Off though, the relaxing nature juxtaposes the cooking competitions Americans are used to. The most significant aspect is arguably the good-natured contestants. When one contestant struggles to finish in time after a disastrous challenge, other contestants who are finished run over to help that person. Everyone wants to see the others succeed, and they will devote time to helping them because they genuinely care. No American competition show includes these types of people, and perhaps Dostoyevsky would smile watching Bake Off.
Free Will and God
Dostoyevsky devotes several novels to examining religion, specifically in Russian culture. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky believes free will is a curse. This curse afflicts people who deny God. Free will gives people the opportunity to reject God’s will which burdens their lives.
Making an enormous leap in the name of humor, judge Paul Hollywood in Bake Off could be considered God. His wisdom cannot be compared to anything to the bakers. His piercing blue eyes tear through contestants as he critically judges their work. The coveted “handshake” he gives when a bake is perfect is equivalent to finding the holy grail. Jesus holding their hand does not feel quite the same as Paul’s handshake to the bakers.
Sometimes Paul will wander around the tent during the first and third challenge (the second challenge they blind judge them), and he vaguely gives advice to bakers when he sees something different. Paul’s holy power holds a grip over the contestants, but sometimes they go with their own gut. That burden of free will in the tent brings immense anxiety to the bakers. Their ability to make decisions on their own after Paul’s influence becomes a curse quite similar to the one Dostoyevsky claims. Yes, maybe Paul Hollywood should not be compared to God, but his aura in the tent overcomes every single contestant as they struggle to become the best amateur baker.
I did not do much research, but I want to devote this time to Noel Fielding. Maybe his fiascos on Bake Off relate to some comedy in Dostoyevsky novels, but for once let us simply bask in someone’s glory.
Noel Fielding became a host for Bake Off in 2017. Whenever a new host joins a popular show, it might be a rocky start trying to win over the audience, but in my ever so humble opinion, Noel grabbed that ball and never stopped running. His antics with co-host Sandi, and now Matt, bring countless laughter. At times he cracks jokes in a contestant’s ear while they struggle through a challenge. Other times he consoles a contestant when they finally break down with emotion. Each week when he must reveal who is going home, it truly pains him. He takes the time to grow close with everyone during their stay at the tent. His love for humans and life permeates everyone around him.
Now let’s talk about this gothic king’s style. His long, dark hair perfectly sits at the side of his head while his fringes tickle his brow. The eyeliner makes those crystal blue eyes pop. Every episode he wears a new shirt or sweater that includes beautifully unique artwork. As he narrates the contestants baking, it feels as if Noel is hugging you from behind and whispering in your ear. His hair tickling your neck, and his sweater sleeves warming your skin. Jesus, I need to calm down.
Vitaly Sumin has a beautiful style of his own. His filmmaking is wholly unique as he adapts Dostoyevsky novels into compelling modern contexts. While Bake Off might coincidentally relate to Dostoyevsky’s work, Vitaly Sumin spends vast time commenting on modern society through Dostoyevsky’s themes. In 2011, Vitaly Sumin released Notes from the New World, a modern adaptation of Notes from the Underground. The film follows a struggling actor in Los Angeles when he becomes stuck in a love affair with two women. He later becomes involved with the Russian mob, intensifying his situation.
During the production of the film, Vitaly Sumin faced an uphill battle. His original screenwriter, Robert Hurley, disappeared with the only shooting script. After gaining access to Hurley’s apartment key, Vitaly Sumin and his crew investigated and found alarming evidence. A journal displayed signs of the occult and ties to the mafia. These findings were alarmingly close to what Hurley wrote for Notes from the New World. This wild coincidence did not go on deaf ears though as Vitaly Sumin documented the bizarre events. Currently in post-production, Dostoyevsky Remimagined: The Making of Notes from the New World follows the wild investigation Vitaly Sumin and his crew set off on. Follow all things VM Productions to learn more about this strange mystery.
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