There are things you expect to experience when tuning into a new season of The Great British Bake Off (or as it’s known stateside on Netflix, the Great British Baking Show): Judge Prue Leith will wear statement glasses and necklaces, host Noel Fielding will wear statement everything, bakers and viewers alike will overestimate the power of a Paul Hollywood handshake, and there will be lingering shots of babbling brooks and greenery. More than anything, though, you expect that signature Bake Off calm, one found only while watching a group of Brits treating each other nicely as they struggle to make kouign-amann or intricate gingerbread houses inspired by their childhoods.
But why would 2020, year of pestilence, punishment, and the presidential election, allow us this one simple pleasure? Why, in a time of such uncertainty, would Bake Off be safe? Maybe because the show went to such lengths to present some semblance of normalcy, its crew and cast living on premises and submitting to regular COVID-19 tests so that they could interact freely in the big white tent. But despite the efforts and welcomed (sort of) addition of Matt Lucas, something about Season 11 feels, well, underbaked and underproofed.
In his recaps on Eater London, my colleague James Hansen has been chronicling the chaos caused by rainbow bagels and ambulance-shaped Battenbergs, but he has more discerning tastes than I do. I’m quite easily pleased by Bake Off clichés: I laugh at the hosts’ riffs, swoon at bucolic B roll, and delight in the contestants’ bios and weird hobbies. Interview the elderly widower about how lonely he was before coming to the show and meeting his fellow bakers and I’ll cry without fail. I’m not technically versed enough to get annoyed at the bakers’ mistakes and there are few things I find funnier than things that are supposed to look like something else but decidedly do not, like, say, a cake bust of David Bowie that looks like a melting snowman. Point being, I’m an easy mark! And yet, I’m unsettled.
It could be that the challenges have been leaning less and less on classic baking and more on viral Instagram foods (like the rainbow bagels), though this is hardly the first time that the show has gotten stunt-y. Then there’s the fact that none of the bakers could figure out brownies in the same episode — Season 11, Chocolate Week — that Leith insulted New York chocolate babka. This wouldn’t be a big deal in other shows, but considering that Bake Off’s biggest scandal was two bakers apologizing to one another and both claiming fault over a ruined baked Alaska, Leith’s verbal assault on a New York City delicacy might as well have reignited the Battle of Bunker Hill.
There’s also a nagging bother for me personally as Bake Off’s judges and hosts — a group that, unlike the bakers, has been steadily and frustratingly white throughout the series’s run— have slowly gone from three women (hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc and judge Mary Berry) and one man (Hollywood) to three men (Fielding, Lucas, and Hollywood) and one woman (Leith). Whereas Perkins and Giedroyc seemed to rankle Hollywood on occasion, the current hosts are mostly reverent towards him, almost like he was the literal king of all bread. And of course, there was that brief and lovely period of the show where Fielding co-hosted with Sandi Toksvig, but that was all too short (pausing for a Fielding-esque joke about Toksvig’s diminutive height here). This isn’t a critique on Lucas. He is doing fine as a new co-host — though if there was even the slightest chance of Toksvig returning, I wouldn’t hesitate to shove him into a current, assuming that he’s a strong enough swimmer to get back to London.
Maybe the issue isn’t the show, at all, but rather proof of how hard this year has been. 2020 has been such a shit show that the The Great British Bake Off no longer works as visual valium. This is what they warn you about drugs in your elementary school D.A.R.E. program: Start and you’ll keep chasing stronger and stronger highs as your body adapts. So what’s next? Attempting to drop further into a fantasy world that’s free of coronavirus and host shake-ups? Where red foxes bound through fields of clover and the air smells of baking bread? Or maybe we grow up and admit that the idealized world of Bake Off was never real to begin with and that we need to develop healthier, steadier coping mechanisms? Ha, sure! I’ll get to that eventually, but tonight I’m going to eat an entire tear-and-share shaped like Mary Berry while watching Gosford Park and hope it helps to fill the void.