At first glance, ABC’s newest romantic comedy-drama has all the subtlety of a Hallmark Christmas movie. A remake of a popular Israeli series, The Baker and the Beauty delivers exactly what the title promises: a baker, Daniel Garcia (Victor Rasuk), has a chance encounter with beautiful superstar Noa Hamilton (Nathalie Kelley) in the bathroom of a trendy Miami restaurant—which just so happens to take place right before he goes viral for turning down his girlfriend’s surprise proposal. Noa comes to his rescue afterward, and the two click during a night that includes rappelling down the front of a building, baking pastelitos, and hitting up the requisite Miami club scene. The obstacles the couple will face are already obvious by the end of The Baker and the Beauty’s first hour, from Noa’s overprotective manager to the ever-present paparazzi to Daniel’s now ex-girlfriend Vanessa.
Except that as I watched the show, I found myself waiting for the stars to get off the screen so we could return to Vanessa, played by Michelle Veintimilla. Initially, Vanessa seems like the kind of character who is destined either to disappear or turn into a villain. The first time we meet her, she’s browbeating Daniel into taking her to an experimental restaurant where the tasting menu is $300. His family refers to her as “Vanessa Princesa.” And in the scene that ultimately ends up driving Daniel into the arms of her rival, Vanessa proposes to him with a mortifying rendition of Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” and a ring she picked out for herself. But four episodes later, it’s clear that The Beauty and the Baker has a more interesting fate in mind for Vanessa than just the shallow, jealous ex-girlfriend.
Vanessa is a driven career woman with lofty aspirations and Champagne taste, while Daniel is along for the ride not only in the relationship but in other parts of his life, like the plan for him to take over his family’s bakery. When Vanessa’s ebullient smile finally wavers and she bursts into tears as she realizes Daniel doesn’t want to marry her after four years together, it’s difficult not to sympathize, maybe even to feel a little surge of pride when she throws a bowl of soup on her wayward intended. Before leaving Daniel to find his own way home, she tells him: “I’m a 28-year-old woman, Daniel. This is what we do. We diet, we get married, we have kids, and we diet again.” It ends with her telling stunned, impressed onlookers—and presumably the millions who will eventually watch the video of her rejection when it goes viral—that she can cook, has her own business and is, as of that moment, officially single. Despite that bravado, the genuine devastation that plays across her face as she asks Daniel whether a yes is too much to ask in exchange for how much she’s loved him leaves no question that this is genuine hurt, not simply diva behavior, and that their marriage would have meant more to her than a ticked box on her perfect life checklist.
Even after falling into a well of mascara-smeared, wine-fueled despair at Daniel’s rejection, Vanessa tries to see his side of things, admitting that her proposal had been “more my thing than his.” She becomes convinced that no man would throw away a four-year relationship so easily, that somewhere, Daniel is curled into a ball crying over it like she is—but of course, he has already moved on with Noa. As Daniel continues to avoid Vanessa, her deluded faith matures into a simple, persuasive logic that a man who has spent nearly half a decade with her owes her at least a conversation. If Daniel’s decisiveness when it comes to his new relationship with Noa is supposed to be charming, his lack of it when it comes to the one he had with Vanessa is unforgivably flaky.
When Daniel bails at the last minute on a dinner to talk over the state of their relationship, it’s impossible not to think that maybe Vanessa would be better off without him. Still, she lands Daniel’s brother, Mateo (David Del Río), a gig at the bar mitzvah of the son of one of her real estate clients, who just happens to be a record executive, a great opportunity for him. She says simply that her last four years with Daniel included his family, and his refusal to talk to her doesn’t change that. And while Mateo is clearly feeling something more than brotherly love for her, Vanessa’s inability to intuit that because she’s still stuck on Daniel only makes Daniel’s own rebound look even more hasty.
In the fourth and most recent episode, Vanessa shows up unexpectedly at a Garcia family dinner whose guest of honor is none other than Noa, and Daniel is finally forced into having the hard conversation he should have had three weeks ago. In the aftermath of that conversation, it looked like the writers were finally going to have Vanessa sink into full-on villain territory by having her expose Noa’s presence to the waiting paparazzi outside. Instead, buoyed by a speech from Mateo reminding her that she’s better than that, Vanessa sucks up her understandable hurt and does the right thing.
In different hands, Vanessa could have easily been a caricature. Instead, Veintimilla manages to both embrace her trope and transcend it, joining the ranks of Jane the Virgin’s Petra and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Valencia, two similar recent subversions of the high-maintenance, catty ex who could stand in the way of the heroine’s happiness. And while there are plenty of episodes ahead in which all of that work could easily be undone, there are enough hints that Vanessa will get her happily ever after to keep me tuning in.