The Great British Bake-Off is back for its tenth season, with new episodes available on Netflix every Friday, just three days after they originally air in the U.K. By now, the reality show has garnered a reputation for being undeniably soothing. It’s the show you fall asleep to after watching a horror movie, and it’s the show you turn on when the news is stressing you out.
Somehow, watching a group of home bakers compete in a series of challenges is as theraputic as turning on an episode of Queer Eye or old reruns of Parks & Rec.
The balance between feel-good TV and a high-stakes competition, where at least one contestant is eliminated every week, is difficult to strike. Yet Bake-Off pulls it off effortlessly.
The first episode of the season starts with the show’s two judges, Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith, and its hosts, Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig, appearing dressed as characters from The Wizard of Oz.
It’s playful and is meant to get a laugh from the audience, but the punchline of the skit is that Paul Hollywood, the show’s notoriously tough judge, is dressed in a Tin Man costume – he has no heart. Even in its lightest moments, Bake-Off reminds its viewers that the show is still competitive, as the bakers are essentially judged on their talent and ranked accordingly.
That delicate balance continues throughout the first episode. “On your marks, get set, bake.” Noel and Sandi sing-song, and the tenth season officially kicks off.
As in previous seasons, each episode focuses on one specific kind of baked good, this week’s episode showcasing specialty cakes. For the first signature challenge, the bakers have to tackle fruitcake; in a voiceover, Prue and Paul outline potential pitfalls and technical difficulties.
The contestants start baking with varying degrees of urgency. One woman, Steph, serenely explains that she is using her great-grandmother’s recipe.
“I thInk it does help to have the family connection there. You feel like they’re with you, holding your hand,” she said.
AnotHer man, Michael, is so flustered that he cuts his finger – twice. Prue and Paul make their way from contestant to contestant, asking about their vision for their fruitcake. Often, Paul ominously raises his eyebrows and wishes people good luck in a way that makes it clear he thinks the contestants will need it.
Offsetting Prue and Paul’s intensity, however, are Sandi and Noel. Both hosts go out of their way to make contestants laugh, offer words of encouragement, or help bandage poor Michael’s fingers.
Noel speaks to a contestant who is worried that her Halloween-themed cake won’t have enough time to bake. “You’ve got time. From one goth to another, I know you’re gonna be fine,” she said.
After Prue and Paul taste each contestant’s cake, one of the hosts unfailingly leans in and whispers, “nailed it,” “absolutely destroyed that,” or, if their cake wasn’t up to par, “so close.”
For the next part of the show, the technical challenge, contestants are asked to bake six slices of angel cake. It’s a task Paul deems “pretty cruel,” and the lackluster results seem to confirm that. As usual, the most engaging challenge is the Showstopper, where contestants must construct their dream childhood birthday cake.
“I’m really hoping for some originality. Children dream a lot. I want them to remember what they dreamt about,” Prue said.
The bakers don’t disappoint, and at this moment, the show is at its most visually dazzling, with technicolor fondant, spun-sugar decorations and cakes in the shape of a pirate’s treasure chest, a carousel, a fairy’s toadstool house and a schnauzer.
Paul and Prue spend a few minutes deliberating, but ultimately come to a decision. Michelle is announced as the Star Baker and tearfully calls her husband. “Prue Leith wants my carrot cake recipe,” she tells him, on speakerphone. Meanwhile, Dan is eliminated based on his performance in both the signature and technical challenges. The episode closes with remaining contestants hugging one another, both congratulating Michelle and consoling Dan.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Bake-Off so charming. Maybe it’s how quintessentially British the show is – in the background of almost every episode, rain patters against the Union-Jack-adorned tent where the competition is held, and contestants introduce U.S. viewers to delightful little phrases like, “Oh my god, I’m in a tizz already,” and “I’m quite chuffed.” It could be the hosts and judges’ big personalities – Paul’s wordless handshake, which is the highest compliment a contestant can receive, or Noel and Sandi’s banter, have become staples of the show.
More likely, though, it’s the simple joy of watching people be kind to one another – Bake-Off is a competition, but often, the contestants don’t treat it that way. They ask each other for advice on how long to leave their cakes in the oven, and remind each other to breathe. Bakers who finish early leave their station and go to help other bakers on the show.
Dan, who unfortunately gets sent home at the beginning of the first episode, says to the cameramen that he will “definitely… take away the friendships.”
It’s this kindness that transforms the typically-cutthroat genre of cooking competitions into a soothing, feel-good television. So far, the tenth season of Bake-Off promises to continue masterfully striking that balance.