When beloved TV gem The Great British Baking Show moved from the BBC to Channel 4 in its native U.K., it came with four big changes. One, it was moving to a more commercial atmosphere, which viewers thought might negatively influence it towards becoming more like the reality competition shows it was in such structural opposition to. Changes two, three, and four were the loss of its original hosts (Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc) and one original judge (Mary Berry), who were replaced by Noel Fielding, Sandi Toksvig, and Prue Leith respectively. Everything else ostensibly remained for Season 9: judge Paul Hollywood and his much sought-after handshakes, the always-too-hot tent propped up in a lush field outside a manor house, the plucky score and structure of the baking challenges and judging. Another change also came for U.S. viewers, which was that the show moved from PBS to Netflix, which was already home to a back catalogue of seasons. (For the purposes of this article, the season that just ended will be referred to as Season 10, rather than Netflix’s distinction as “Collection 7”).
For skeptical viewers, including yours truly, Season 9 won us over by keeping things as familiar as possible. Yes there were new faces, and it took a little while for Noel and Sandi to find their comedy groove, and initially quite a few of the bakers seemed markedly more attractive than past casts. But overall, things felt normal. Which, for The Great British Baking Show (or Bake Off / GBBO, as it’s known in the U.K.) means a quietly charming series where the casts form real friendships, encourage one another, and even help each other out. There’s no major cash prize, just a glass plate, but the exposure for many of these amateur bakers becomes very lucrative. Still, there’s a homey-ness to the proceedings—thanks in no small part to the gentleness of the judging, lack of catty comments, and a lack of interest in dramatic backstories—that has made the show a premiere Comfort TV watch of recent years (and propelled it into the top 10 of our Best TV Shows of the Decade).
With Season 10, though, things felt a little wobbly. It was the youngest cast yet, which doesn’t set off alarm bells on its own (many, though not all, of the most successful bakers on the series have been youngsters). Most of them were exceptionally camera-ready (there were no grandmothers in this group), but despite appearing to be decent bakers, many struggled with technical challenges and lamented working with classic baking styles. The usually genial Noel Fielding seemed to be actively getting on some of the bakers nerves with extended comedy bits, and the judges seemed particularly harsh on certain cast members who showed exactly the kind of imagination that they have praised in the past. There was also a gimmick where two bakers would be sent home at once, which was saved until far too late in the season. Favoritism seemed to dictate the outcomes of two episodes which should have been judged just on the performance that week and not cumulatively, leading to viewer outrage. And yet, the cast did seem to genuinely bond together over the course of the season. It was a mixed bag, which is not really what you want from GBBO; you come mainly for kindness and some fine baking.
Season 10, in other words, felt like the Season 9 we were all expecting. Something a little sleeker, a little cattier, a little more produced for dramatic effect. One of the other major changes this year for U.S. viewers was that we got to watch the show weekly, and only a few days after each new episode aired in the U.K. That was helpful in avoiding spoilers, but it also makes me wonder how much more pronounced some of the season’s problems might appear to a viewer choosing to binge it instead. And yet, the finale did seem to include the three best bakers of the bunch.
Now to get into some specifics: From pretty much the start of the season, this was Steph’s competition to lose. We learned in this final hour that the petite wunderkind has only been baking seriously for a year, but she is obviously a natural. She won Star Baker a record four times, yet her confidence waned with each subsequent week. Alice and David were both consistent throughout the competition, but it became something of a meta gag that David always came in second (in technical challenges and in consideration for Star Baker). Thus, it was a very sweet victory to see him triumph in the end. But it was a little sad, too, that Steph just completely fell apart in the finale, the opposite trajectory of so many past finalists who really come into their own as the season continues. (David is an example of someone who learned and adjusted as he went, remaining very calm and always finishing with plenty of time. Alice remained exceptionally anxious with a memorably messy work station, but she always pulled it together in the end).
Still, the carnival atmosphere outside the tent felt like a metaphor for the direction the series appears to be going in—bigger, showier, no longer content with being a quiet, charming look at taking one’s baking to the next level. In watching past seasons, I’ve always been motivated to want to rattle the pans in my own kitchen and bake some bread or pastries or something very low-level, inspired by the episodes and the time taken to show and explain the process of creating these remarkable dishes. That wasn’t true this year; I enjoyed watching the show, but it didn’t inspire me to bake. Some part of the alchemy had been lost.
There are a myriad of competition shows and baking shows, but what made this one so different was its commitment to bringing in a cross-section of gentle home cooks with the knowledge necessary to take their bakes to the next level, shepherded by firm but fair judges and silly but sincere hosts. Most TV shows need to evolve and change to keep people watching in this current programming glut, but the strength of GBBO is that we don’t want it to change. It’s lovely just as it is. Or perhaps, as it was. As it should never forget, unlike its competitors, it doesn’t need to rely on showstoppers to win us over.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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