The wind has shifted in the tent, and the once-quaint Great British Bake Off (known, of course, as the Great British Baking Show here in the States) has become the focus of intense criticism. The show is not what it used to be, the thinking goes. It is gimmicky. The bakers, once pure, plucked like shrub roses from the great British countryside, are now a bit too aware that they are on reality television. Matt isn’t Sandi and Sandi wasn’t Sue. There is too much Paul Hollywood, the challenges are too stunt-y, and the series is not soothing enough.
Yes, the Bakelash is now fully risen, and it has bubbled over to all sides of the internet: “Bake Off Is Broken,” the Guardian lamented last year. It was too mean now, and too youthful — where were the older bakers? — and the tent had gotten too stressful and the technical challenges had gotten so esoteric they’d become meaningless. This was a common complaint: Rather than testing true mastery, the Atlantic complained, the show seemed to have decided that the technicals “should be as cryptic and as unfriendly as possible.” The Paul Hollywood Handshake — a third-season development that seems ginned up by overeager producers to create anything resembling a trademark moment — is, according to one of my esteemed peers, “not only undignified, it’s against the point entirely.”
Our friends at Eater call the show’s current season “underbaked and underproofed.” Even I was put off by all the problems with chocolate week. So broken is the series that Brian Phillips at the Ringer has laid out a five-point plan to save the show, one point of which amounts to recasting everyone on it.
Having watched this week’s episode, I would now like to offer a counterpoint: The Great British Baking Show is still just a show, and perhaps we’ve all been asking too much of it.
I did not set out to become a Great British apologist, but I did go back and watch a random episode from the supposed glory days (season three, episode six): The technical was flaounas. Nobody had heard of those, either. Is it not remotely possible that our dissatisfaction with this season is not, in fact, about Great British Bake Off, which is a still basically enjoyable show about nice British people baking, but instead with the world outside the tent? If I cannot get excited about the craftsmanship of Laura’s showstopping caged tart, is that because the show “isn’t what it used to be,” or because I am distracted by a deadly pandemic and a terrifying election and the fact that I have barely left the house in seven months and have developed the attention span of a three-month-old goldendoodle and the emotional bandwidth of a stunted gnat? (I’ll concede: It could be both.)
For all that the season has tried to recapture normalcy, there is only so much that it can do. Instead of commuting to the tent on weekends, everyone involved is living together in a biosphere Bake Off bubble, and while they’ve all been given practice kitchens “in a structure in the hotel car park,” they don’t get the relief of going home. Also, who is doing their absolute best at anything right now? Just because the current season of Baking Show looks and sounds like a “regular” one, that doesn’t mean it is. Even rainbow bagel enthusiast Paul Hollywood is struggling right now, probably; I have no evidence for this, but it is fun to imagine.
All of which is to say, it’s pastry week in the tent, and everything goes as it should. After nearly capsizing last week, the ship has righted. The remaining eight bakers made savory pasties and salted caramel eclairs and neat tarts in cages, and it was all reasonable. The drama was the good kind: small and organically generated. Linda doesn’t remember how to make choux pastry, so she ends up with limp Dunkaroos instead of éclairs. Mark’s tart cage collapses. Laura, who, until now, has been repeatedly scolded for sloppiness, nails one delicate bake after another. Linda, as we all fear she might, gets sent home.
This is the show that we like, is it not? Soothing and gentle and fundamentally kind, a bunch of jovial Britons in a countryside tent anxiously whisking the lumps out of creme pat. It was a good episode. I felt nothing.
Make no mistake: We have been betrayed. I’m just not sure it’s Bake Off that’s betrayed us. We are owed so much, by so many institutions, and by comparison, the tent is pulling its weight. Can we not enjoy it, still, on its own terms, to the extent it is possible to enjoy anything? Can we not still marvel at a harvest sheaf, even if it doesn’t drown out the low hum of anxiety? Can we not root for Irish Mark, who loves to travel for his career in project management, even if we are mostly numb to joy? It is British. There is baking. The real problem with this season of Bake Off might be far simpler to explain: It exists in the same world that we do.
Next week’s theme is Japan!