Look, it’s a nice show. You don’t need me to tell you that. Often, after a hard day at my job of sitting on a sofa skimming through apps, it’s the only thing I trust to help me unwind. The tent. The lawn. The unexplained glimpses of ducks. The promise—the guarantee—that at regular intervals, an elegant English lady will say, “Oh, I do think the cardamom works a treat.” I can’t precisely explain why these things have, upon my frazzled soul, the effect of a breath of clean mountain air, but if you’re reading this, the odds are that you feel it too. Somewhere within each of us is a quiet room where Norman, in his handsomest sweater vest, is toiling over a batch of absolutely flavorless farthing biscuits, and fortunate we are indeed, my bairns, to have such a refuge.
There is one aspect of The Great British Baking Show that is not so nice, however, and that is the Hollywood Handshake. I hate the Hollywood Handshake. In the name of what is good and true, I want to destroy the Hollywood Handshake. The Hollywood Handshake (I’m sorry I keep saying it; the term itself has a kind of evil charisma, like “punch in the presence of the passenjare”) is smug, patriarchal, corporate, phony, vain, and cynical, all qualities to which The Great British Baking Show is supposed to stand as an antidote. When I watch the Hollywood Handshake (punch, brothers!), I feel as though I understand how World War I could have happened.
Paul Hollywood—can we talk about Paul for a second? The azure-eyed, granite-haired celebrity baker is an essential component of the Baking Show’s success, but oh my goodness, friends, what a tricky ingredient he is to deploy in the recipe. Perhaps Paul himself might say it best: When you have so much sweetness in your bake, you need just that bit of sharpness, that tartness, to balance it out. But add in too much, and it overwhelms the flavor. What should be light and beautiful becomes a claggy mess of preening masculine pomposity.
How can I put this in a way that would not disappoint Mary Berry? Paul does not, I think, entirely mind being seen as a powerful authority figure. Paul is just about able to stand it when he’s put in the position of dispensing absolute judgment from his inaccessible aerie of fame and expertise and mysteriously hard-eyed stares. These are qualities the show needs in carefully controlled amounts, because when you are trying to build a world that is nice, it is necessary to illustrate how that niceness stands up against the everyday selfishness and not-niceness of this bad, old world. But when you give an ego like Paul’s too much room to inflate, you risk subjugating your nice world to a very The Assistant Principal Is Singing At The Pep Rally Again sort of feeling.
And that is why the Hollywood Handshake is so insidious. Ostensibly, it represents Paul at his nicest—good job again, Rahul, you little genius!—but in fact it represents Paul at his most narcissistic and authoritative. (Imagine calling someone more than 5 years old a “little genius.”) It’s the move that implicitly establishes Paul as the senior of the two judges, because his co-judge, who is always a woman, has no equivalent accolade to dispense. It’s the most obnoxiously branded element of the show, and what’s particularly galling is that since the show jumped networks and changed hosts last year—a change that presumably increased Paul’s clout, as the longest-lasting member of the on-camera team—there’s been much more overt discussion of the Handshake as a kind of tangible honor. Is she in danger this week? No, because her signature “got the Handshake.” You can hear the trademark symbol shimmering in the air. Paul himself talks about it like this: “I did give him the Handshake,” he’ll say. He loves talking about the Handshake like this. You can tell by how pinkly he twinkles.
This has to stop. The Great British Baking Show is too important to allow this cheesy gimmick, this rubbery meringue, this soggy bottom of concepts, to subvert its deliciousness. I don’t want to seem too hard on Paul here. I like him; he’s what would happen if Henry VIII decided to act like David Beckham. But enough is enough. We must demand that this Handshake, this affront to true niceness, be overthrown and suppressed, the way Henry VIII suppressed Catholicism. That’s a confusing change of metaphor, but I refuse to apologize for passion when the cause is just. Burn the monasteries!