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Can ‘Great British Bake Off’ Be Saved From Itself?

A roundtable discussion on where our favorite comfort watch went wrong, our love of Lizzie Acker, and the problem of Matt Lucas

Surrounded by teal kitchen appliances, the cast of the current season of The Great British Bake-Off lines up behind, from left to right, Noel Fielding, Prue Leith, Paul Hollywood, and Matt Lucas. Channel 4

For over a decade now, The Great British Bake Off (titled The Great British Baking Show in the U.S. for copyright reasons) has enchanted British and American audiences with its charming contestants and cozy appeal. Described by many as Xanax in the form of reality TV, the world of Bake Off stands out for its good sportsmanship and friendship among the bakers. There’s plenty of tension surrounding the challenges — do you use the balloon method for your sugar dome, or a mold? — but the stakes are low and there’s no cash prize, so almost everyone leaves the competition tent with graciousness and new friendships.

But even something as wholesome as Bake Off can’t be entirely without scandal. Beloved hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, along with widely respected judge Mary Berry, left the show after seven seasons over multiple disputes. The show switched U.K. networks from BBC to Channel 4. Giedroyc and Perkins were replaced by the equally adorable Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig, while Prue Leith — all chunky necklaces and bright colors — came on as remaining judge Paul Hollywood’s new partner.

There was a brief moment where Bake Off seemed like it could recover from its Season 7 fracture and for a while, it looked like it had. Unfortunately, Toksvig was next to quit the show and Fielding was joined by comedian Matt Lucas, someone the audience really doesn’t seem to like. Bake Off has evolved into The Paul Hollywood Show, with increasingly ludicrous and impossible challenges all set up to play into Hollywood’s enormous ego. Still, we fans continue to turn in for new servings every season, even if they’re not — to borrow Prue’s most awful catchphrase — “worth the calories.”

Here we gather as Eater coworkers and Bake Off fans to discuss our personal relationships with the show, where it goes wrong, and what could be fixed. Plenty of spoilers for the current season below.

Madeleine Davies (culture editor): Welcome, colleagues, to The Great British Bake Off Eater Round Table (GBBOERT). Think of this Slack room as your own Big White Tent, fully stocked and ready for your opinions, be they overbaked, underproofed, or handshake-worthy. Do not hold back, but remember, one of you will be fired at the end of this.

Rebecca Flint Marx (senior editor): I’m just here to say that Lizzie was robbed.

Dayna Evans (Editor, Eater Philly): I shit you not — I cried.

MD: Before we get into the current episodes, I want to start a little farther back — what was it that first made you a Bake Off fan?

RFM: I first got hooked when I saw it on a visit to England. It was so pleasant and soothing. I love a show where the biggest stakes are whether your frosting sets in time.

Amy McCarthy (staff writer, Calm soothing British vibes after years of rotting my brain with American reality television, which is only evil.

DE: I don’t remember how I got into it originally but I can no longer recall a time before Bake Off.

James Hansen (associate editor, Eater London): I’m British so I’m legally obligated to watch it, otherwise Paul Hollywood appears in my dreams at night.

MD: James, that could be a Babadook sequel.

RFM: I’ve always thought of the show as a place of refuge. For me, not the contestants...

DE: My heart rate lowers the instant I see that chocolate cake with raspberries in the intro.

RFM: Yes. It’s like Xanax for me. My pinnacle of happiness is eating dessert while watching the show.

DE: Oh, yes, followed by making something they made on the show.

MD: For audiences in the U.S., based on how it was released on Netflix (as The Great British Baking Show) here, I feel like the Baked Alaska Incident was what first sucked American audiences in. It was such a low-stakes scandal.

JH: I’ve actually never been convinced by the Xanax quality of Bake Off (sorry, most of the world) and first started watching it because it struck a good balance between explaining why baking works and why it doesn’t, but not being quite as surgical about it as other British cooking shows (Masterchef, in particular). As the series have gone on, the hosts have changed, and the challenges have got both more ridiculous and shorter, I have adopted a sort of critical fondness toward it. I want it to be better, I know it can be better, but, still, Paul and Prue persist.

RFM: Yeah, I love it for that, too; I’ve actually learned a lot from the show. Paul Hollywood, for all of his issues, is very good at explaining bread, for instance.

MD: So this might be a bit obvious, but when do you think the show started to go wrong?

RFM: Matt [Lucas].

AM: Things started to go off the rails when the challenges became more about making absurd sculptures and not just highly technical baking

JH: Going wrong stage one: removing Mel and Sue; removing educational history tour.

RFM: I’m going to say something very unpopular, which was that the way Mel would bellow “baaaake” really annoyed me.

JH: Going wrong stage two: Amy’s point on absurd sculptures/turning challenges into vehicles for memes. Going wrong stage three: Matt Lucas.

AM: Also, the time constraints. That focaccia this season was so embarrassing.

RFM: The time constraints are sadistic. The ice cream sandwiches this past episode being a case in point.

JH: Sorry, adding to “going wrong, stage two”: introduction of the Hollywood handshake in Season 3.

MD: A lot of people point to Mel, Sue, and Mary leaving as the beginning of the end. James, this is the first I’ve heard someone mourn the history segments!

DE: I’m with James regarding the history segments.

JH: At least, if you historicize a biscuit that was made once for an 11th-century banquet in an obscure corner of Normandy, at-home bakers can learn something or have a better shot at doing it and it makes the show feel less about, “So, there’s this whole history of baking... but what really matters is that these two British people Paul and Prue like it y/n.”

DE: The added context made the show feel more like we’re all here to learn not BAKERS, YOU MUST KNOW LAROUSSE GASTRONOMIQUE BY MEMORY.

MD: And it helps foreign audiences, too. I know much more about eel pie now that Mel took us to that old eel shop on the Thames.

Okay, so the big turnover and network change is where it started to lose its luster. But I’ll say that I was pleasantly surprised by the ease with which new hosts Noel and Sandi took over!

RFM: I love both of them.

DE: I love them both. Noel... a king.

MD: Or a French Duke, as he was known on The Mighty Boosh.

AM: Noel really grew on me. I found him almost Matt levels of obnoxious at first, but now he’s very charming. And he has really great hair.

JH: Noel brought some edge to the tent of vanilla.

RFM: He’s like a cuddly vampire.

MD: He seems so genuinely kind to everyone. I love when he banters with the bakers. And he always loves the biggest weirdos.

AM: It seems like he really makes friends with everyone. That’s another reason I love the show — the cast always loves each other so much and it is very sweet.

DE: Loved the Lizzie moment this week where she was like, “It smells like jaguar wee” about chocolate and Noel goes, “You’re weirder than me.”

RFM: Or that goth woman a couple of seasons back who was obsessed with Halloween.

JH: Oh yeah, Helena.

DE: She had a cameo on What We Do in the Shadows!

MD: I loved spooky Helena and her bats. All the jokes about her and Noel running away together.

RFM: Lizzie could be their child.

MD: I think it was around that time that challenges started to get a little more ridiculous, but the hosts’ charm was distracting enough, and new judge Prue still seemed kind of fun with her chunky jewelry and statement glasses.

JH: A truly weirdo decision, given that literally the best thing about Bake Off is the organic chaos. The baked Alaska. Freezer drama. Things on the floor. Is the oven on? No. Is that sugar? It’s salt.

RFM: There is already inherently enough drama in baking.

JH: It’s also meant that’s it’s lost one of the most consistent and good tropes. Up until I thiiiiink the 2020 season, when they’re going round the bakers and everyone is doing something and they’re like, “Yeah cool, that sounds like it will work” and they get to another person and they’re like, “This really obviously foolhardy thing that we already know will go 100 percent wrong.”

MD: As anyone who’s done even a small bit of baking can attest, working for hours on something only for it to burn or fall apart or go wrong in all the ways it can go wrong is absolutely heartbreaking. No need to throw in a Cake Boss-esque twist.

RFM: Even if it goes right, you must accept that it will be almost immediately demolished.

AM: Ugh, Paul takes such delight in cutting into those pretty desserts!

DE: He’s a sadist.

JH: I do think there is a small distinction between stunt things that are actually okay (celebrity cake heads) and the ridiculous ones with things, either food or nonfood, that are just extraneous. Like whenever they require the bakers to make a side... I think one year they had to make butter?

RFM: I don’t like the ones that require them to build infrastructure.

JH: This year’s “biscuits, but it’s a toy” was utterly heinous.

DE: It’s fun to see the contestants become better bakers, but not for desserts that literally no human for any reason in any universe would ever want to make or eat.

AM: You know those cookies taste like shit, too. Any cookie with that kind of structural integrity is gonna be a misery.

RFM: Paul Hollywood will not abide any cookie that does not snap like a bone.

AM: I absolutely do not trust Paul or Prue on flavors.

JH: Palate tyranny like the world has never seen.

AM: If a cookie’s amount of ginger is too spicy for you, grow up!

MD: Can I ask a dumb baking question? Why is there a dedicated dessert week when half of the challenges are desserts?

RFM: I have always asked this exact same thing.

AM: That’s for mostly non-baked elements, right? But there’s always one baked element required, while you have to make dacquoise and bavarois, and every other kind of -oise.

DE: The categories are dumb.

RFM: Frequently baffling.

MD: James, is this just an American misunderstanding regarding what counts as dessert?

JH: They need extra weeks so that they don’t have to do anything international and expose the whole sham.

DE: Remember ’80s week?

RFM: Wasn’t it like tiramisu and shoulder pads?

JH: There used to be pudding week, as well as dessert week. I think “pastry week” is a relatively new invention, as well, whereas before they had pie, tart etc. The descent into category chaos is fairly recent.

MD: I like when they do, like, Tudor week, though.

AM: Yes, more time period weeks!

RFM: Into eccentric weeks. The more, the better.

DE: I think they should always have a vegan week.

AM: Making them do lamination with vegan butter is just rude.

RFM: I was pained that Freya wasn’t there for vegan baking week.

AM: Poor Freya! GBBO needs more Gen Z energy.

DE: 10,000 percent.

RFM: I love how every season has a teen prodigy.

AM: Ruby Tandoh 5eva.

JH: Peter the silent assassin.

AM: Freya could not be bothered with Paul.

MD: I would like to talk about The Problems With Paul.

DE: Here’s the thing about Paul. I actively shout at the TV every time he speaks. I want him to not be on the show ever again. But I feel like... I need a villain?

JH: Paul the baker explainer, good. Paul the judge, very bad.

RFM: I’m still recovering from his appearance as the Hulk. I actually felt as embarrassed for him as I did for myself.

JH: Quite apt for illustrating the problem with him. He’s outgrown his role and become a cartoonish parody of himself, as has the handshake.

AM: I did like him as Billy Ray Cyrus. I thought it was funny! Sue me.

RFM: He seems a bit antiquated, and not because of his age.

JH: There was an episode last year when they had to do something burger-related (why) and everyone was like, OMG, no gherkins because Paul hates gherkins. That isn’t how judging should work.

MD: My issue with Paul is that he really is like “I AM A ROOSTER AND THIS IS MY CHICKEN COOP.” They’re all lucky to step into his world and not the other way around.

AM: I also feel like he’s stopped talking about technical things as much and now is just into his catchphrases — soggy bottoms and handshakes all the time now.

DE: Yes, it’s not a test of how good of a baker you are, it’s a test of how much your baking pleases Paul specifically.

JH: I do think the bigger-picture issues with how Bake Off judging jives with the way people consume the show go beyond him though. I’m gonna copy/paste because I’ve written this down several times now:

Following Hermine’s elimination last week, Paul Hollywood argued that those “new to Bake Off” might not have understood that each week is judged independently of the other. If that’s what Great British Bake Off wants to be, that’s cool, but it plainly is not. The judges regularly discuss previous weeks in deliberations; previous Star Bakers are constantly brought up; themes are revisited. It’s a series! Of course they are!

So if GBBO does want to go by week by week, it needs to do it properly, and also ask who that actually serves. One of the show’s strengths has always been its investment in the bakers’ journeys — they tell everyone how it’s going, people find their favourites, and they care about how well they do. If everyone knew that those previous weeks didn’t matter, then maybe the fandom would change; the problem with Hermine’s elimination, and Sura’s earlier in the series, was that it felt like the judges were telling the audience to care about every episode and then telling them that they had been fools to do so, because they didn’t matter at all.

AM: This all felt very clear in Lizzie’s elimination.

JH: It’s also kind of wild to me that a show with the premise of “broad mastery of baking” can have a scenario where someone who has one iffy challenge can be kicked off.

RFM: That’s my issue with it. Zero context. It makes me wonder if they’re doing it because they want to keep certain contestants on longer because they’re playing well to audiences.

MD: There’s also a hyper-patriarchal power structure on the show. It’s frustrating how much Paul’s ego is catered to at the top — Prue seems content to be his second, and he’s much more comfortable being made fun of by other men. Like Noel gets away saying things to him that Mel, Sue, or Sandi could never.

AM: That’s another thing I really liked about Lizzie. She gave him the what-for pretty regularly and he would give her that condescending dad eye.

DE: Lizzie literally goes “Who cays wut Paul thinks.”

AM: I have a whole other theory about why Lizzie interacts that way with Paul. Paul is ruder to... not conventionally attractive women. He is nice to pretty girls and old ladies. Lizzie, I think, is used to being treated that way by men like that so she can push back. I’ve been the fat broad interacting with that guy many times and it’s always like, Okay, sweetie, nobody thinks you like me too much.

RFM: 1,000 percent.

MD: Very true. Remember the winner Candice? He was so obviously into her in a way that made me deeply uncomfortable.

RFM: Or of course there was the way he behaved with Ruby Tandoh. He was leery and at the time there was some shit talk that she got as far as she did because he was into her. It was very unfair.

MD: That is so painful because she’s obviously hugely talented.

DE: I feel like Paul thinks he’s Succession’s Logan Roy, like everyone is so eager for his praise and approval. Who will get a kiss from daddy?

AM: Part of the problem is that the contestants feed into that and faint when they get a handshake.

RFM: Everyone enables him.

JH: Yup, self-perpetuating myth.

MD: Dividing all the contestants based on what Roy child they would be is a fun exercise. Alright, we’ve been at this for an hour and I’ve kept putting this off: Matt Lucas.

DE: One word for Matt Lucas. Boo.

AM: Did he tell one funny joke one time and I missed it?

RFM: He is so chronically annoying. I don’t know how anyone puts up with it. And he’s always interrupting the contestants when they’re already so stressed out. Who thought this would be charming?

JH: Just another export from the “did highly offensive comedy in the early 2000s and somehow got away with it” British pipeline.

MD: Yeah, an unfortunate part of the current hosts is that both have done blackface (or something close to it) at some point. I’d love for that not to be the case.

AM: On a positive note, Chigs is exceedingly hot.

DE: Can we do a different Slack about how hot Chigs is?

AM: He has gotten hotter week to week.

RFM: Amy, that’s true!

DE: The fake glasses.

MD: So beyond Hot Chigs, what could fix Bake Off?

RFM: 1, 2, and 3: Get rid of Matt.

MD: That’s definitely a growing demand.

AM: Prue, too.

RFM: Get Prue to stop counting calories, make Paul stop shaking hands and being Paul.

DE: Retire the handshake.

RFM: Bring back the historical segments.

JH: Paul, Matt, Prue: Bin them. Paul can stay if he becomes a sort of White Walker expert. Guest judges who know what they’re talking about, according to each week, and please, producers, just learn about baking in other countries and cultures? Please? So you don’t do a disastrous Japan week, or bad babka challenge. Most importantly, give contestants enough fucking time to bake the things.

RFM: Stop forcing people to make meringue on 90-degree days.

AM: Guest judges! Humidity control in the tent!

DE: Air condition the tent!

MD: Something one of you mentioned the other day is using the past pool of contestants for rotating guest judges. It would help fix the problem of baking for Paul and Prue’s specific tastes, and it would be fun to see old faces come back.

JH: Would also mean there would be a bit more empathy for the ridiculous constraints. Assuming they don’t change them, which they should, but I doubt they will.

RFM: It would also be a great opportunity to bring back audience favorites, and a source of moral support for the bakers.

MD: Final question, since it looks like we’re possibly looking at a more international Bake Off final than ever before: Giuseppe or Jürgen?

AH: I am team Jürgen. I love that they are both engineers, that feels very obvious.

MD: Giuseppe and Noel’s riff about the different states of their benches as examples of Italian versus German engineering was adorable.

RFM: Season highlight.

JH: I lean Giuseppe, think Jürgen is the more complete baker, but that Chigs is going to win.

MD: I am also Team Giuseppe, though I do love how Jurgen sounds so much like Werner Herzog, lending everything he says a sort of detached fatalism.

RFM: A la Herzog, I can see Jurgen figuring out a way to carry a boat over a mountain.

AM: It does not sound like he should be talking about chantillies and ombres.

JH: Edible shoe showstopper in the final.