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Times are changing for 'The Great British Bake Off' and not necessarily for the better

The hosts of The Great British Bake Off.
The hosts of The Great British Bake Off. (Image credit: Channel 4)

When the opening included new host Matt Lucas doing a skit dressed as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, you knew that The Great British Bake Off had taken a little detour. It was certainly an effective way for the series, now in its eleventh season and its fourth since moving from the BBC to Channel 4 (the show remains a Netflix staple for American fans), to kick things off for 2020. Yet it still felt like a quiet admission that the show was changing. Still, judge Prue Leith promised the same old Bake Off: Familiar and comforting. Nobody really wants them to jazz up the formula. After all, Bake Off is one of the true undisputed kings of reality television, the perfect combination of low-stakes tension, food porn, and genuine human kindness.

When Bake Off started in 2010, it was a minor hit on a smaller BBC channel that seemed like pleasant, if easily ignored, Summer TV viewing. As the years rolled on, however, the show gathered steam and became one of the most-watched shows on British television, all without mucking around with its incredible simple idea: Gather together a group of amiable amateur bakers, set them fun challenges, make a few "soggy bottom" jokes along the way, and win the hearts of the nation. What is fascinating about Bake Off is how little its basic set-up changed over the years. You knew what you were getting with this show and audiences loved it. In an overcrowded entertainment ecosystem, where literally thousands of shows compete for your attention, there was something perfectly anti-dramatic about Bake Off. Sure, you could get sucked into the unusually unbearable tension over whether sponges will be done in time, but compared to more traditional reality programming that still relies on manufactured stakes and gif-friendly screaming, Bake Off felt like a much-needed nap: Calming, almost rejuvenating. 

Now, things have changed. Not much. You may barely notice them unless you’re looking for it, but they’re there. For instance, it’s hard to overlook the change of the series’ mood now that the quartet of judges and hosts is majority male. Matt Lucas, best known for the comedy series Shooting Stars and Little Britain, has taken over from Sandi Toksvig and brought the focus thoroughly onto the comedy. It took Toksvig and Noel Fielding a while to establish a comfortable rapport, but he and Lucas seem on stronger footing from the jump. However, the mood seems more tilted towards jokes than the gentle guiding of the likes of former hosts Mel and Sue.

Last year, Bake Off faced some criticism from viewers who felt that the series had lost some of its magic. Kimberley Bond of Radio Times lamented how season ten seemed overwhelmed with cruelly impossible tasks and a more obviously competitive edge, with Paul Hollywood seemingly taking a few too many notes from Simon Cowell. The small but noticeable changes made Bake Off more tense than any viewer wanted it to be. Really, it seemed in danger of becoming just like every other reality series on TV. It was understandable. How many unique cooking challenges can you come up with after ten years on the air?

The issue with these wildly complicated bakes, which included one instance where contestants had to make an edible glass cabinet to cover their cake in under four hours, is that they aren’t for the home cook, but Bake Off is. It’s not meant to be a highly competitive thunderdome of icing. This is a show that is intended to inspire everyday folks to give it a go, mess it up a bit, and enjoy the results. That doesn’t work when Paul and Prue are driving people to tears over the kinds of recipes that would have even the most talented patisserie chefs shaking in their boots. With earlier seasons, you never got the feeling that the contestants took criticism too hard because the intent and tone was always more buoyant than, say, Britain’s Got Talent. Now, when Paul and Prue moan about things being “dreadful” or “inedible”, it seems designed to hurt, and you, the viewer, feel the pain. In this aspect, it feels like Bake Off is taking cues from its spin-off, Bake Off: The Professionals, wherein trained chefs create agonizingly detailed confections and face much harsher scrutiny for it. But they do this for a living. You can’t judge an IT manager who bakes for their family on the side against a Le Cordon Bleu trained pastry artist or make them bake the same things.

When a series gets this successful and carries the weight of so many industry and audience expectations, it’s inevitable that the show will lose that scrappy homemade quality that hooked millions of fans in the first place. Still, while the shift is near-miniscule, it is noticeable. The first episode of this new season offers a minor cliff hanger after one contestant accidentally knocked over another’s technical challenge bake right as an ad break began. It’s an old school reality TV gimmick, one that seems beneath Bake Off, even though, once the break was over, the jovial cozy mood returned. Moments of low-key drama that felt organic in earlier seasons now bear the guiding touch of a producer’s agenda. Even the first showstopper challenge, wherein contestants had to make a cake bust of their hero, felt unnecessarily difficult for week one. At least it was knowingly daft, with some of the results better suited to Nailed It! than Bake Off.

Bake Off is a show of impeccable simplicity, and it remains heartily enjoyable, even as its format seems to ever-so-slowly move towards something more formulaic for the reality TV genre. For those of you who want to see fun, friendship, and lots of double-entendres about moistness and large nuts, Bake Off will always provide. Frankly, during these tough times, and on the same day that the British government announced further restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Bake Off feels like a necessary balm. That’s what it was designed for, so why would Channel 4 want to reinvent the wheel? We’ve spent a decade being excited to watch total strangers make scones and wedding cakes, and that doesn’t need to be changed.