The latest season of The Great British Baking Show was not without its flaws. Shoddy judging sometimes made for a frustrating watch, and "frustrating" is not a word often associated with the gentle, kind baking competition. But even with its more difficult moments, GBBS has remained a genuine gem -- sweet and savory in equal measure. Getting to watch it weekly here in the US through Netflix this past season also made for a charming change of pace, one that left us hungry for more every Friday.
Unfortunately, with change comes withdrawals, and the just-concluded season has left us with a GBBS-sized hole in our hearts. What series can fill the void of earnest charm while we await the next return to the tent?
Enter Disney+'s Encore!, a new weekly docuseries that reunites casts of high school musical theatre productions years later, recruiting them to put on one more performance. It may sound gimmicky, even corny, but the show itself is a kind-hearted treasure. It's a nice dose of positivity that's guaranteed to lift your spirits.
Encore! is ostensibly hosted by Kristen Bell (who also executive produces), but as seen in the premiere episode — which reunites the cast of Santana High School's 23-year-old production of Annie — Bell's on-camera role is fairly limited. The true stars are the onetime theatre kids who have moved on in their lives. Some are parents now nervous about their kids seeing them as actors. Others are busy professionals who are using the show as a break. A few are former friends who haven't spoken in years. Some carry baggage from their high school experiences into rehearsals.
But overwhelmingly, you get the sense that these are good, decent people. They don't seem to have come to the show in search of their fifteen minutes of fame. They're genuinely invested in something that might seem a little silly on the surface. After all, who needs these encore productions? Their happiness wasn't dependent on recreating a musical theatre performance from over two decades ago, but it's a challenge, and these folks rise to meet it.
That's another thing that's reminiscent of GBBS: The amateur thespians may not be the best actors or singers, but they aren't untalented. There's a reason they did musical theatre in high school. Encore! wisely pairs the casts with theatrical professionals — a choreographer, a music director etc. — to fine-tune their craft. The goal isn't to make them Broadway-ready, but to really bear down and make something special. Throughout rehearsals, the performers put their best feet forward, overcoming emotional obstacles to do the very best they can. (One man in the premiere has a particular hangup about shaving his head, and watching him bust through it offers some of the most emotionally satisfying material Encore! has to offer.)
Another very GBBS-esque element is the fact that the performers in Encore! — by virtue of the show's premise — are mostly middle-aged, ordinary people. These are not the folks usually plucked to be a part of mainstream reality TV. The casts give Encore! an authentic, earnest veneer. It's easier to sell an up-by-your-bootstraps story like this with people who look like they've actually pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.
Encore! may end up being too sweet for some, and other episodes with weaker casts may not thrive the way Santana High School's alumni do. But between two reunited friends, an openly gay man reconsidering his high school experience, and a truly thrilling climactic performance, there's a lot in the premiere to recommend the series. At the very least, it'll soothe your Great British Baking Show withdrawals for a bit.
Encore! will be released Tuesday November 12 as part of the launch slate for the new Disney+ streaming service.
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Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles. Follow his musings and rantings on Twitter @kevinpokeeffe.