Welcome to the Eater round-up of Great British Bake Off 2020, as Paul Hollywood, Prue Leith, Matt Lucas, and Noel Fielding return to Channel 4 with the 11th series of cakes, puddings, breads, and inevitable recourse to terrible baking puns. Filmed in a bio-secure coronavirus bubble, producers had originally said that Paul Hollywood’s terrible handshake was cancelled, but somehow, it is still here, as sweaty as ever.
Great British Bake Off 2020 Episode 9, Patisserie Week, tackled, well, patisserie, kind of, with a signature challenge covering savarins, a technical challenge covering [checks notes] a Scandinavian horn of plenty, and a showstopper covering cube cakes. It was ... an episode that struck at the heart of why the series even exists.
This week’s round-up is going to take a new format, in a shock to the system befitting its final result. With the series drawing to its close, and next week’s final changing the terms of the competition — who will win, versus, who will lose — it’s time to look back not just on Patisserie Week, but the eight episodes prior, because this is Great British Bake Off, an aptly titled sweeping survey of bakers’ mastery, designed to produce a well-rounded, highly skilled winner with no significant gaps in their repertoire... ... ... ... Isn’t it?
First chaos, then tedium
Give the show some credit: it started strongly. Cake Week showed great promise — Matt Lucas’ first intro, an aping of a Boris Johnson coronavirus briefing, hit the nation’s synapses just right. Battenberg and pineapple upside-down cakes were solid signature and technical material; Sura’s inadvertent toppling of Dave’s pineapple upside-down cakes was genuine, agonising, wholesome drama; all before the most memorable showstopper of, calling it here, the show’s entire life.
A cake bust, at its heart, is an entirely deranged thing to consider doing, let alone to consider doing on TV, but its expectations/reality vibe, useful insight into contestants’ personality, and creation of a situation in which Sir David Attenborough’s head fell over while Tom DeLonge’s face melted where his music could not made for pure theatre. Was it TV for Twitter? A little, absolutely — but it was also genuine GBBO energy.
This series has never really reclaimed that energy, and it’s not just that Great British Bake Off doesn’t feel the same anymore. There has been a slow transition through the last few series from organic to manufactured; not just in terms of drama, but in terms of the very tasks set. Prue’s Sussex pond pudding technical sabotaged Dessert Week because there wasn’t enough time; Paul’s rainbow bagel technical in Bread Week didn’t really demonstrate anything about bagels beyond their capacity to be rainbows; the biscuit trompe l’oeil in Biscuit Week was a desperate kind of cool, rather than --impressive--. Put this sense of confection against the slow dilution of the show’s coziness, and the result is a programme that has lost its mojo.
The judges’ flaws aren’t charming anymore
Great British Bake Off has always suffered from the “British” part being used as a tool of limitation — Paul and Prue appear to have the collective spice tolerance of every other U.K. food show judge. But whether in asking white chocolate showstoppers to not be too sweet; complaining that a cake has no apricot until one eats the apricot part; putting Patisserie Week’s third finalist through based on cube cakes being “worth the calories”; and now setting impossible tasks, the reign of Paul and Prue feels like it has run its course. This culminated in the Orientalist mess of Japanese Week, in which the show’s abject lack of curiosity about the scope of baking and the limits of “British” baking culminated in possibly its worst episode to date.
Great British Bake Off has started undermining its entire purpose
First: there’s always judging controversy on every competitive TV show, food or otherwise, and it would be unreasonable to even stitch together a pattern of bizarre decisions as evidence of a series-wide problem. Yes, Loreia’s elimination in Cake Week felt a little bit too “ew, spice in food”; yes, Mak’s elimination ahead of Rowan in Biscuit Week after both Paul and Prue said out loud that Rowan wasn’t taking advice was pure entertainment over skill; Sura’s Chocolate Week elimination and Lottie’s 80s Week elimination showed that there’s still too much focus on the showstopper round and not the previous two. All of these are really just proof that Great British Bake Off is a TV show, with obligations to be entertaining and create some drama, not exactly a charge that can be levied against it and not [gestures at all competitive TV.]
But this week, Patisserie Week, saw Hermine — who has the most star bakers of the series alongside Peter, who is in the final — go home ahead of Laura, who has scraped through at least four shows. Laura is a competent baker, and has her strengths, but also has serious weaknesses, while Hermine has been good - excellent throughout the entire series and had one rough week with some lopsided cube cakes and a nightmarish [checks notes] Scandinavian horn of plenty.
Sounds like another case of that dramatic judging! Nothing to see here! But, actually, no. Great British Bake Off is asking a lot of its audience if it expects them to invest in every episode, watch the bakers’ journey, see faves develop their skills and have their highs and lows, but then also accept the fact that those previous episodes are absolutely meaningless in terms of where those journeys end. There is absolutely no point in a series of challenges — not just within episodes, but, in the case of GBBO, the makeup of the entire series — designed to prove broad technical mastery if broad technical mastery has zero bearing on success. What’s even more bewildering is that it evidently does, to a point — Peter and Dave have, alongside Hermine, been the two most consistently strong bakers throughout.
This isn’t exclusive to GBBO: Masterchef and Great British Menu suffer from it too, but their challenges, while various, are not really designed to prove absolute well-roundedness — even if you might expect a show called Masterchef to need that. And therein lies Great British Bake Off’s failing this year: it’s asked its fans to invest in an ethos and an approach to merit that it simply doesn’t fulfil.