Another season of The Great British Baking Show has come and gone. If you want to know who won on the finale that recently premiered on Netflix, you'll have to watch or look it up somewhere else.
You know who else is winning with the beloved cooking competition? Three seasons into a massive cast shake-up, I'd say we are.
I am an eternal optimist, but even I was worried about the future of the show when we learned three years ago that judge Mary Berry, in addition to original hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, would be leaving the show. The changes came after Love Productions defected from the publicly funded BBC in England, where the show is known as The Great British Bake Off, to advertising-supported Channel 4. "Has officially hit soggy bottom," read the headline of my lament, which, as viewers will know, is one of the most devastating burns you can get on this show. In the States, the show also moved from PBS to streaming on Netflix, where episodes this season were released weekly rather than all at once.
I'm happy to say I was wrong to be so pessimistic, for the most part. Of course, you never forget your first love. The seven seasons with the original cast will forever live on in my heart, with a kind of ethereal glow, much like the idyllic sunshine-through-flora shots the production team likes to sprinkle throughout each episode. (Can someone please investigate the fake deer lurking in the greenery that shows up in way too many shots?) There's no replacing the classics, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate what has come after.
Prue Leith has, in fact, proved a worthy, if slightly less warm, replacement to Berry. If anything, she seems more willing to give fellow judge Paul Hollywood what's what. There are times this season where she flat-out disagrees with his assessment of a bake, and that is always immensely satisfying. Like Berry, she knows her stuff and plays up her affection for all things boozy. And can we talk about those statement necklaces? I anticipate finding out what chunky, geometric and colorful neck bling she will be wearing as much as I do what the baked goods will be. They seem worthy of a dissertation themselves.
Speaking of sartorial splendor, hosts Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig don't shy away from bold attire and, in Fielding's case, eyeliner. When the duo first appeared, I couldn't help thinking their act felt a bit forced. I can't definitively say whether they've relaxed more into the roles or I've gotten used to their antics. I think it's both. I can laugh and eye-roll at the same time, though.
If Giedroyc and Perkins were, as I've previously said, the daffy, slyly bawdy aunts, Fielding and Toksvig are more like those relatives who play up the ham act that you know is ridiculous but you love them for it anyway. No doubt, their brand of humor is different from that of longtime friends Giedroyc and Perkins, who took a more erudite approach to being the comic relief. Fielding and Toksvig rely more heavily on props and visual gags. Slapstick is underappreciated these days, so I'm willing to roll with it. I could, though, live without all the short jokes aimed at the petite Toksvig, who gamely plays along nonetheless. I've lost track of how many times this season Fielding pretended to toss her around in a burlap sack. Bags notwithstanding, they do play well off each other.
Like their predecessors, Fielding and Toksvig excel in connecting with the contestants, offering pep talks, a shoulder to cry on and a laugh as needed. Seeing Fielding try to rattle the bakers with edgy jokes is on the whole pretty entertaining. This season, repeat star baker Steph had little tolerance for his antics, but semifinalist and veterinarian Rosie always rose to the challenge, often with a quick-witted response, when Fielding needled her with animal humor.
Of course, not everything is English roses in the not-quite reboot. The baked goods are more likely to border on completely absurd, if impossible. (For the uninitiated, there are three per episode: a signature, showstopper and technical, the first two of which the bakers know about in advance.) Witness this season's mind-bending Sarawak cakes, which hail from Malaysia and involve baking multilayered and -colored cakes that are cut and reassembled into kaleidoscope patterns. Or last season's melting chocolate domes that dissolved to reveal another dessert inside. The technical challenges of late seem designed to set up the bakers for failure. In the show's earlier incarnation, you were much more likely to have at least one baker who knew something about how to make the mystery dish whose ingredients lurk under a gingham cloth, with only a very pared-down recipe to guide the contestants. These days, the technicals almost always prompt blank stares and bug eyes all around. Last year's fire-baked pita from the finale? Let's not even go there.
Similarly, Hollywood — and the editors — seem to really be leaning into his bad-cop persona. He seems less ... human than before. Long stares at the bakers, lingering shots of those piercing blue eyes. It's basically the real-life equivalent of the cartoon villain twisting his mustache. Are we supposed to be scared? Amused? Either way, it's a bit stale by now.
To me, the most glaring change in the three post-BBC seasons is the distinct lack of older bakers. Don't get me wrong, I love a wunderkind as much as everyone else — dear Henry and his earnest neckties! But one of the things that was most quintessentially British about the show's earlier seasons was the inclusion of bakers who had been in the kitchen longer than some of their younger competition had been alive. The even-keeled, self-effacing veterans who were, despite being on an actual competition, somehow less desperate for the approval of the judges. Season 1 (here, anyway, as PBS picked up the series several years in) winner Nancy was the kind of grandma who'd invite you over for a treat and a cuppa. And who could forget her cohort Norman, the blunt Scot who unabashedly stuck to tradition even if it wasn't flashy? Where have those bakers gone? Have they self-selected themselves out of applying? Have the producers decided they're not exciting enough for the younger demographic of Channel 4?
So, yes, nobody — or no show — is perfect, even Bake Off. It's only because I love it so much that I can see its faults — and forgive them. Not everyone can. USA Today went so far as to call this season a "train wreck."
In the end, I need this show. We need this show. What can I say? It's still a recipe for success, and, as usual, I'm hungry for more.
The Great British Baking Show
Episodes streaming on Netflix
Style on 11/26/2019
Print Headline: Baking Show is back with cast, network changes