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How 'The Great British Bake Off' struggled this season

Season 11 contestants of The Great British Bake Off.
(Image credit: Channel 4)

The latest season of The Great British Bake Off is over (in the UK at least - Americans will get the finale this Friday on Netflix). The tent has been packed away, the bubble of crew who helped to make this COVID-free environment work have all gone home to their families, and a new winner has been crowned. Audiences seemed… well, they seemed reasonably okay with the final choice, one that did not prove particularly shocking or surprising. One could never claim that this year’s victor was undeserving, especially in a season of such tough competition. Still, there was something amiss with GBBO 2020 that’s been tough to ignore. One of the jewels in the crown of British television, an endlessly joy-filled celebration of talent, charm, and gentleness, felt like it slipped downwards in a minor but easily noticeable manner. Much of the old magic was still there, but everything felt a little more tired, a little more mean-spirited, and all decidedly un-Bake Off.

The show has been dealing with these criticisms ever since it made the jump from BBC to Channel Four, losing judge Mary Berry and hosts Mel and Sue in the process. Fans worried that the show would lose its inherent whimsy and simple appeal with the move to a channel with ad breaks and potential product placement. The latter, thankfully, never happened, and by and large, things remained pretty solid with new hosts Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding at the helm. New judge Prue Leith was never as beloved as Berry, but at least the basic building blocks of the show were in place. Nobody was messing with the formula.

So, what changed this season? Toksvig stepped down and was replaced by comedian Matt Lucas, best known for shows like Little Britain. He was a more bombastic presence in the tent and too similar in energy to Fielding, which meant that the energy of their dynamic never fully landed with audiences. Fielding desperately needed a straight-faced or droll individual to bounce off, but he and Lucas’s approaches were the same to telling jokes, bantering with contestants, and keeping the forward momentum moving. Fielding is a surreal chaos agent, but so is Lucas. There were moments where it felt a little too obvious that the contestants were more irritated by Fielding’s interventions than amused.

Much has been made about judge Paul Hollywood’s full swerve into Simon Cowell-esque mean reality TV show judge, but what hasn’t been discussed as much is the curious bluntness of Prue. A huge chunk of Bake Off’s appeal came with its distinct lack of gimmicks and forced drama, the kind of constructed shenanigans common in other reality competition series. This is a show where audiences could reach peak emotional investment over whether a custard base would set in record-breaking Summer heat or if the contestants would get the shape of their pastry horns right. It was a concept shaped by a welcoming kind of niceness, one where everyone involved knew that the stakes were ultimately pretty low – it is baking, after all – and trying your best really was enough. So, it felt pretty harsh to hear Leith call contestants “disappointing” or their bakes “disasters” with such cruelty. Nobody’s asking to have their hand held but Bake Off succeeds by refusing to be the kind of show where Gordon Ramsay calls someone an idiot sandwich for screwing up a recipe.

The weekly challenges veered between reasonable and doom-inducing, with the very first episode seeing the bakers forced to construct cakes in the likeness of certain celebrities. It was a moment that had more in common with Netflix’s own baking competition, Nailed It!, rather than the expected whimsy of Bake Off. Bless the bakers for pulling through on near-impossible tasks, although one has to wonder if Prue, Paul, and the crew are running low on ideas. At the very least, you sensed how limited the show’s scope had become. This was best demonstrated in the Japanese baking week. Japan has a rich and incredibly varied culinary culture, especially when it comes to sweets and bakes, but Bake Off reduced it to matcha (which Paul doesn’t even like) and “kawaii” cakes. At best, it was a bit cringey.

Note: the following contains minor spoilers for Season 11 of the Great British Bake Off. 

The final was also tinged with the sense of lost opportunities, thanks to the absence of Hermine. One of the show's undisputed talents and a two-time winner of Star Baker, her elimination in the semi-finals was a true shock for viewers. Even Noel had tried to steer the judges into letting her through to the final given that Laura, a talented and charming woman whose bakes were notoriously messy week after week, seemed to have more to prove by contrast. Not only did it mean the loss of a great baker, but it set Laura up to be a public target, and the abuse she has received online is utterly revolting.

As always, the true gems of Bake Off were the contestants: Laura’s appealing and all-too-relatable chaos, Peter’s baby-faced earnestness, Lottie’s dry humor, the comforting dad of the group Marc, and old-school retro charmer Rowan. Regardless of the changes the show makes, or the questionable decisions made by the judges, this is a show about average people who do wonderful things without ever losing their inherent normalness. That's probably why the show, despite all these criticisms, continues to be a ratings winner. 

This year, The Great British Bake Off gave Channel 4 its highest ratings for any series since 1985. It is and remains a true pop culture phenomenon, and when the ending montage showed the contestants remaining friends, with finalist Dave cradling his newborn son, you couldn’t help but feel won over. Bake Off is a show that works based on a precarious balancing act, but even as that goes askew, there’s a beating heart at its center that never stops. Frankly, during times of darkness and the increasing COVID restrictions that have left large swaths of Britain cloistered at home with little hope of a happy Christmas, this little victory went a long way to helping us all feel that much brighter.