I don’t know about you, but during the holidays there are moments when I need to hide somewhere and relax from all the merry and happy. My go-to place for holiday comfort in general is UK TV shows. Derry Girls, Line of Duty, Doctor Who – it doesn’t matter. Every TV trip to the UK immediately feels like a vacation.
This year, however, I felt like I needed something more intentionally relaxing. (2022, Amirite?) So I decided to look into reality programming from the UK. If you’re looking for something simple on busy days, here are a few places to go.
Cooking Show Fantasies
British baking shows are now quite a genre in their own right and, in line with UK television conventions, many of them deliver special stand-alone episodes for the holiday season, such as ‘Gordon Ramsay’s Christmas Cookalong’ or ‘Jamie Oliver’s One-Pan’. Wonders” (both on Britbox).
But I was surprised to find that many of these “Let’s make food for Christmas” programs actually increased my stress levels. Ramsay’s show includes him cooking an entire Christmas dinner in 45 minutes (in front of a live audience, to boot), and to say it’s a high-anxiety exercise is an understatement. Oliver’s One-Pan Wonders Christmas episode is less frenetic and beautifully shot, but there’s still a lot of work behind it.
My go-to place for holiday comfort in general is UK TV shows. Every TV trip to the UK immediately feels like a vacation.
For me, this year’s Great Christmas Baking Show (Netflix) was the Christmas baking show that really conveyed that cozy vibe, with four of the cast members of the brilliant British miniseries It’s a Sin competing for Paul Hollywood’s handshake and Prue Leith’s friendly applause. (The secret: adding alcohol.)
One of the joys of the celebrity version of “The Baking Show” is that the cast have an instant camaraderie. They joke with each other, cheer for each other and generally feel like a group of friends enjoying a vacation time away from the maddened crowds together. Basically, it’s the perfect fantasy Christmas, and while it’s not at all like real Christmas feels, it’s very comforting.
A second episode, which I haven’t seen yet, features some fan favorites from past seasons, including 2018 finalist Kim-Joy, who was known for the wildly inventive creatures she would add to all of her baked goods. I think it will be perfect for the day after Christmas.
Gardening as prayer
I know even less about plants than about cooking. (Remember, do plants need sunshine or are these omelettes?) But garden shows are also a staple of British television. And I quickly stumbled upon Gardeners’ World (Britbox) which has been running in the UK longer than I’ve been alive. For the holidays, they’re releasing a set of four winter specials.
What immediately grabbed me is that Gardeners’ World is so calm. From the host Monty Don, to the various experts consulted, to the ordinary people showing a bit of their garden, everyone speaks almost like a library. Sometimes no one speaks at all and we just listen to the wind or birdsong as the camera glides gently through a garden. Living in a big city, I had no idea how much I hunger for this kind of stillness.
“Gardeners’ World” is a show that finds salvation in small things. Seeing it is the definition of respite.
For those interested in gardening, the show offers many interesting ideas and practices, but to be honest I was too busy drinking in the beautiful cinematography to follow what type of potting soil works well with winter succulents. Produced by the BBC, the show shares the same appreciation for the visual beauty of life on our planet that its award-winning nature documentaries are known for. Even your standard Christmas tree or ordinary nature walk will look absolutely transcendent through these lenses. And the various hosts do an excellent job of bringing out the poetry of each plant and describing what we see with a wonder and joy that is absolutely contagious.
“Gardeners’ World” is a show that finds salvation in small things. Seeing it is the definition of respite. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show that felt more like prayer
Celebrities playing games
The UK has the biggest celebrity TV game shows, period. And a big part of what makes them so gorgeous is that they’re so downright goofy. There is no money on the table and generally no ticking clocks either, just a bunch of very funny people saying and doing ridiculous things just to make us happy.
For my money, “Would I Lie to You?” is the best of the bunch. (Britbox) and Taskmaster (YouTube). In “Would I lie to you?” The celebrity participants are asked to read cards on which they have said or done outrageous things. You then have to make that sound believable or, if it’s actually true, retell the story in a way that sounds ridiculous. This year’s Christmas episode isn’t out yet (and maybe for a while), but really, any episode of this show is a great way to while away a half hour during the holidays. (I would heartily recommend any episode starring Bob Mortimer. He is one of Britain’s most brilliant comedians and most convincing liars.)
The UK has the biggest celebrity TV game shows, period.
In Taskmaster, contestants are asked to come up with outrageous (and often confusing) things, which are then judged by comedian Greg Davies and his assistant Alex Horne. The joy of the program is seeing the different ways in which the participants approach the tasks given to them. It’s really a show about exploiting loopholes in the instructions. Watching people discover or miss shortcuts is also a joy.
Instead of a Christmas episode, Taskmaster is doing a New Year’s party. Here’s last year’s.
And for those who want to get a little deeper, a friend recently introduced me to a very different kind of seasonal relaxation show: Puppies Crash Christmas (Hulu). In this reality program, a dozen adorable puppies are released into a Christmas Day staged as a family living room. Wrapped presents lie under the tree, full stockings hang on the mantelpiece, food is ready on the table. where is the family In the church maybe? locked upstairs? Long fled? It doesn’t matter, because there are puppies here who will happily romp around and destroy everything over the course of the next 30 minutes.
Ever since I first saw Puppies and its counterpart A Very Kitty Cocktail Party, I’ve been trying to understand why I find these shows so incredibly relaxing. (And they are; they really are.) Part of this may be the fact that there isn’t a single human being to be found in them. This is not your favorite version of “Home Alone” where thieves or the family eventually come home and chaos ensues. No, it’s more like checking into your nest from work and watching your pets suddenly discover where you keep the dog food.
But I think there’s also something deeply cathartic about watching all the hard work that goes into preparing for Christmas being systematically (rather than maliciously) destroyed. We’ve all tried so hard to make everything nice for the holidays; it’s generous, but also kind of draining and maybe not that helpful to our collective mind. If our house looks nice and our food is delicious, but we’re so tired or irritable that we can’t enjoy it, something is definitely wrong.
I’m not suggesting that we kitties in holiday sweaters down our eggnog martinis and tear down our tree (although watching a tabby in a bow tie playing with a Christmas ornament is all you could hope for). But they remind me that this season is not just to be endured, but ideally to be enjoyed.