Television

The Great British Baking Show Kind of Sucks Now

Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith look down in disappointment at a row of tarts.
Moments before Paul Hollywood walks out in disappointment at an unnecessarily difficult technical challenge. Netflix

The Great British Baking Show returns this week with a fresh batch of amateur bakers, and it’s not just the contestants that are new in Season 11. Host Sandi Toksvig has been replaced by comedian Matt Lucas, and the show’s signature white tent has been traded for a pandemic-friendly “biosphere” where cast and crew were required to quarantine for six weeks. It wasn’t that long ago that even these changes wouldn’t have dampened my enthusiasm for a show that functions largely as a sugar rush for weary souls. But after a gradual decline leading to a disastrous last season, another host change and the potential loss of pastoral B-roll make the arrival of the new season as appealing as underbaked pastry.

For most of its history, The Great British Baking Show was a wholesome standout in an ultra-competitive field otherwise dominated by expert chefs with tragic backstories desperate to convince the judges and audience that they deserve to win $10,000. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Chopped.) The Great British Baking Show winners receive only a cake plate, a bouquet of flowers, and the exposure; the lack of a massive prize has usually kept the stakes low, so that when one of the hosts once consoled a flagging baker by telling them, “It’s just a cake,” it didn’t read as patronizing—it really was just a cake. The show’s focus on home bakers rather than professionally trained pâtissiers means that the contestant pool usually has a broad range of experience. Retirees bake alongside stay-at-home parents and 16-year-olds finishing up their exams, with plenty of good-natured, cross-generational ribbing. Perhaps most importantly, there was always the sense that a hobbyist could actually win. The challenges were challenging, but they weren’t Olympian feats of dough-making.

All that went up in smoke last season. Much of the show’s recent decline can be chalked up to the second act of each episode, the technical challenge, where bakers are given a limited recipe and have to rely on their prior knowledge and experience to fill in the blanks. Early technical challenges featured familiar baked goods like English muffins, ciabattas, and tiramisu cakes. In contrast to the other two challenges in each episode, where ingenuity wins the judges’ favor, the technical challenge is designed to test the contestants’ grasp of basic baking principles. From an audience perspective, one of the joys of watching the show as an amateur baker is believing that, with enough time and willpower, you might actually be able to re-create some of the recipes. And even if you’re not going to attempt a wedding cake, at least the down-to-earth nature of the show meant that it was possible to actually learn something from watching it—the basics of how to achieve the all-important layers in puff pastry, for example.

But by Season 10, the show—and in particular, the technical challenges—had mutated into something altogether crueler. The transformation began as early as Season 9, when the judges required the finalists to make pita bread over an open fire, begging the question of exactly what technical skills (besides endurance for high temperatures) were being tested. The same question arose within the first three episodes of the most recent season, Season 10, when, along with having to bake hamburger buns, contestants also had to make veggie burgers. Hamburger buns and pita bread themselves aren’t far out the realm of a home baker’s kitchen—the ninth season’s trial by fire was actually the second technical challenge appearance of pita in the show’s history—but the same can’t be said for Season 9’s puits d’amour and Æbleskiver or Season 10’s “Moroccan-style pies” that necessitated warka pastry.

The technical challenges now feel less like a means to test bakers’ practical skills and more a way to get them and the audience to say in bemused unison, “I’ve never heard of this”—and there’s data to back that up. One Reddit user analyzed all the technical challenges from Season 1 through Season 9 and found that they were getting more complicated and obscure over time. The Great British Baking Show isn’t like Nailed It, where the point is to watch contestants fail. If all the contestants bungle the technical challenge to the point where one of the judges almost walks out upon seeing the end result—something that actually happened in week four of Season 10, when the bakers were charged with making a Tudor-era dessert—then the problem is not the bakers but what’s being asked of them.

The increasing strain of the technical challenges demonstrates the trend away from the homey and familiar of The Great British Baking Show toward the spectacle and inflated stakes that define so many other cooking competitions. Reality shows, of course, have to innovate and change. As the audience broadens with each passing year, it only makes sense for the show to evolve with it. The breakout success of Season 6 winner Nadiya Hussain has changed the show for better and for worse: The producers have chosen increasingly diverse casts year over year (though of course, a host of color would be a much stronger signal of their commitment), but contestants now also know just how high their star can rise after the final bake. It wasn’t uncommon in the early seasons to hear contestants say that their family had convinced them to audition. Now, more than a few already have cultivated the kind of camera-ready persona that comes with knowing that Instagram fame could await them.

In juggling these new dynamics and attempting to keep the show relevant, The Great British Baking Show seems to have forgotten what made it so special in the first place. It’s impressive when a competition show manages to feel friendly. Few manage it. That Great British Baking Show fostered an environment where contestants regularly wander over to someone else’s workstation and help them plate at the last minute is something to applaud. But producers seem determined to ramp up the drama by perplexing contestants, not just in arduous technical challenges but in weekly themes that have strayed from tried-and-true pudding and caramel weeks to themes like “Roaring ’20s” or a “festivals” week that had six white British bakers making traditional layered Malaysian cakes. Compare that with the final technical challenge for Hussain’s season, which was mille-feuille, an undoubtedly difficult undertaking that is nonetheless easily recognizable.

The move toward the obscure doesn’t just belie the show’s status as a comfort watch, it fundamentally changes the aim of the show. If all the contestants are constantly being thrown headfirst into the deep end, what the judges are ascertaining is not their skill but their resourcefulness and resolve under pressure. That’s fine—but there are already other shows that do that. With the new season already airing in the U.K. (Americans can start watching on Netflix on Friday), there’s hope that the producers have wised up: The first technical challenge for this season is a simple pineapple upside-down cake. But the true curveballs normally come later, and there’s enough unfamiliar in the world right now. With the change to format that our new normal necessitates, The Great British Baking Show would do well to take the advice its own judges frequently give: to focus less on style and more on substance.