Last spring, following the lowest rated season in recent history, The Great British Baking Show‘s producers announced
Alison Hammond as a new co-host and promised to “scale back” the show. No more ill-advised international weeks. No more insanely impractical showstoppers. No more ridiculous technical challenges that may or may not actually involve baking.
We’re five weeks into the revamped 14th season, and it’s time to assess. We’re all officially loving the new co-host, Alison Hammond, and agree that her genuine warm and bubbly energy is a perfect compliment for Noel’s wackiness. Improved host duo: check. But is the show delivering what it promised from a production perspective? Just as important, is the new season actually a step in the right direction?
The Great British Baking Show has been lambasted for its internationally themed weeks that represented different cultures and their cuisines in ways that were completely reductive or just plain inaccurate. (Layered tres leches, anyone?) In addition to being culturally insensitive, many fans felt that these themed weeks also prevented the contestants from displaying actual baking skills, such as pastry—which wasn’t highlighted until week eight last season.
This season, following executive producer Kieran Smith’s promise to keep this year’s competition “very traditional,” and “not do any national themes,” the themes for the first few weeks have been almost painfully straightforward: cakes, biscuits, bread, chocolate, and pastry. So far, so good. But if we’ve already breezed through the basics, and we’re only halfway through. And if they’ve promised to keep things “very traditional” for the entire season, what’s left to look forward to? “Party cakes” week?
With its iconic aura of gingham-cloaked mystery giving way to wildly unpredictable challenges, the technical has always been a fan favorite. But in recent years, these challenges have become increasingly absurd. Last season alone, two of the technical challenges—spring rolls and the much-criticized tacos—didn’t feature any baking at all. Another, Paul Hollywood’s version of s’mores, involved making homemade digestive biscuits and perfectly round, two-inch-high marshmallows from scratch. If you’ve ever had a s’more, that’s just plain crazy.
This season is a completely different story. The show is almost at pains to show how “back to basics” they can get. For example, the first week’s technical featured the title sequence’s iconic chocolate cake topped with raspberries—the same one that has started each episode since season 1. It’s a cheeky nod to the show’s promise to return to its roots and focus on what originally made it great. And while I admire the sentiment, I have to admit it made for a fairly easy, uneventful, and dare we say boring technical.
Four weeks later, not much has changed. The technicals have been… technical. Some seem exciting at first (custard creams? Devonshire splits?) but when it turns out they’re just sandwich cookies and sweet buns sliced in half and filled with jam and cream, they’re suddenly a lot less interesting. Also, the bakers don’t seem to be having a particularly hard time creating them. Isn’t seeing a few disasters part of what makes technicals fun to watch?
We can all agree that each episode’s final showstopping challenge should be a colossal baking project that most of us would never dream of attempting. But recent season’s showstoppers have escalated to absurd multifaceted tasks, all to be accomplished within impractical time limits. Fans were outraged at the Halloween lantern piñata that needed to be filled with at least three sweet treats. And what about the 3D storybook pie scene containing at least eight pies that must be creative, and sturdy, and delicious, and beautiful… and baked in four hours?
This season, after promising to “strip it back to basics, with a few twists,” the production has reduced the difficulty of the showstoppers so dramatically it’s almost comical. Instead of hanging lantern piñatas and hidden surprise mousse cakes, we’re getting cakes shaped like animals, braided bread centerpieces, and decorated fruit pies. Cute, but unfortunately we’ve already seen most of these challenges (or variations of them!) in previous seasons. Doable shouldn’t mean boring.
We can all appreciate a series that’s willing to listen and learn from its fans. And yes, the show had gotten a little bit over-the-top in recent years and needed to course correct. While I agree it’s important to highlight the bakers’ abilities through themes and challenges that focus on real baking skills, it’s still a TV show. It needs to retain some of that unpredictable volatile fun that we all love about it, and right now the challenges and themes are feeling a bit bland.
At this point in the season, the production seems to be over-correcting itself, steering too far in the opposite direction with challenges that are too simple and straightforward for fans. But there are still five weeks left, so who knows what will happen.