Of all the cooking shows in the world, the one I was the most excited to see was The Great British Baking Show, which released its newest season last month on Netflix (with new episodes out every week). It’s one of my favorites; there’s something about its blend of warmth, camaraderie and relative lack of competitiveness (and tons of sugar) that sets it apart from the fiery spirit and tense drama of other cooking shows. Considering that it’s become an international phenomenon, currently in its 11th season, there appear to be a lot of people who share my fascination.
The premise of The Great British Baking Show is simple: The judges, Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith, look for amateur bakers from across Britain. The bakers then compete amongst each other by making dishes according to a weekly theme. They bake three dishes a week in increasing magnitudes of difficulty and one person is eliminated while another is declared “Star Baker” every episode.
It’s quite similar to MasterChef, but the focus here is on the simple ups and downs of baking and the quirky personalities of the participants (it doesn’t even have a cash prize). Another highlight are the two hosts this year, comedians Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas, who add an air of cheerfulness and spontaneity to the formula of the show.
This year, like everything, was different. The show was shot entirely during the pandemic in a “Bake-Off Bubble.” Trying to assert the same sense of comfort the show normally evokes in these anxiety-prone times is a difficult task, and it was interesting to see how the hosts tried to toe that line.
For example, in the cold open for the first episode, Matt impersonated Boris Johnson, imitating the British Prime Minister’s often contradictory COVID-19 briefings and disseminating integral information like “If you must bake in a tent, bake in a tent. But please, don’t bake in a tent.” And the sign on his lectern? “Stay Alert: Protect Cake: Save Loaves.” These kinds of cheesy one-liners and short skits have become the primary way that the show refers to the all-consuming pandemic, along with more serious tributes to the National Health Service in the U.K. and essential workers across the season.
More than anything though, the show is about the simple delights of baking and the personalities of the bakers. This season did well to let those shine through.
Just in the first six episodes released so far, we’ve encountered people like Linda, a 61-year-old retiree who bizarrely loves Bob Marley, who made a dish called “High Tea in Amsterdam” and claimed that “you can put anything you like in a brownie” — all evidence pointing in a fascinating direction.
Then there’s Rowan, a music teacher and antique waistcoat collector who takes inspiration from Beethoven for his baking ideas, and college student Peter, who started baking so that he could make gluten-free cakes for his wheat-allergic brother.
And of course, the personality is not restricted to the participants; judges Prue and Paul make a fine pair. Prue brings optimism with her bubbly, empathetic demeanor, along with a preference for booze-friendly dishes. Paul, whose steely blue eyes and demand for perfection present an intimidating personage, still contains a soft spot. In fact, it’s become a tradition in the show that when Paul really enjoys a dish, he will give its creator a handshake — what could be more British than showing deep feeling through handshakes?
However, there’s a lot of emotion in the show this year, even more than usual. In previous seasons, emotions would run high only if somebody had a dish unexpectedly fall over or they ran out of time, and even then, the incident would be ameliorated by the hosts or with help from other participants.
Although that still happened this year, as the weeks progressed, pandemic fatigue seemed to hit. In Chocolate Week (the fourth episode), the first challenge of baking brownies was a disaster. Half the brownies were raw, the judges were berating everybody and Lottie, one of the bakers, said “I just want to curl up in a ball and die quietly.” By the end of the week, Sura, another participant, summed up the events simply with “Whatever, I’m done, I’m done.” Not exactly the kind of mood that I expected from a normally cheery, comforting show.
I don’t want to present too negative of a picture because the show picked back up in later episodes. I particularly enjoyed episode six, Japanese Week, when in the final challenge the bakers made some incredibly creative cakes representing kawaii culture: Mario-themed red mushroom cakes, a cake that resembled an upside-down pineapple and more. Another great challenge was in Cake Week, when the bakers had to make busts of celebrities as cakes, which led to some hilarious depictions of Freddie Mercury, Bob Marley and Lupita Nyong’o.
Overall, the new season has, in its first half at least, done a good job in keeping alive the essence of the show, making sure that it wasn’t getting too formulaic by branching out into different types of comedy and baking challenges. It’s a great way to find some peace and comfort in these anxious times, and it will be sure to give you some good ideas for things to bake, or at the very least, things to eat.