The year-old merger between Discovery and Scripps has opened up possibilities that hadn’t existed before, as people who once were on competing networks are now part of the same corporate family. So the network and/or productions can team them up, which worked exceptionally well with While You Were Out, a show that brings together personalities/”designers” from HGTV shows and TLC’s Trading Spaces.
Buddy vs Duff, not so much. It pairs Food Network Ace of Cakes Duff Goldman and TLC’s Cake Boss Buddy Valastro “in an epic baking battle for the chance to be crowned the undisputed king of cake,” according to Food Network.
But it’s more flimsy than epic. And they’re both losing.
Oh, technically, going into Sunday’s finale, they’re tied. (The finale airs at 9 p.m. ET; before that, starting at 4, Food Network will repeat the entire series.) The judges have awarded points during the previous five episodes, and coincidences of all coincidences, surprises of all surprises: they’re exactly tied right before the finale. They just must be equals!
That is how the show is framed. It’s a competition between two former competitors: In 2006, Food Network launched Duff’s show, and in the wake of its success, TLC created Buddy’s show. Since then, Buddy had more spin-offs, and Duff has recently been a judge and/or competitor on Food Network shows.
There’s something odd about having them come together by trying to prove which one of them is the best, because where does that leave the other one? It’s not that losing is a problem—Alex Guarnaschelli has competed many times and her losses don’t undercut her credibility, in part because there’s no huge weight placed on her win or loss. If she beats Bobby Flay, awesome; if not, okay! Also she’s Alex Guarnaschelli and she is just amazing.
A buffet of reality TV styles
The first episode of Buddy vs. Duff felt like that nightmare where you show up on the first day of production of a reality TV competition between pastry chefs having forgotten to do any pre-production, so you just start to make it up as you go along.
It’s a hodgepodge of styles and formats, a buffet of different cuisines, none of which go well together and all of which feel like they’ve just been microwaved.
Sure, there’s a structure: a mini-challenge, which takes them outside their comfort zones (donuts, pies) and then a cake-off challenge where they have to create a themed cake for an event.
Most episodes, Buddy and his assistant Ralph have created a massive, personality-filled cake, and Duff and his assistant Geof have created a meticulously detailed cake. (They’re great-looking cakes.)
The scoring of the very first cake-off, which gave the win to Duff, led to a fourth wall-breaking moment as Buddy walked off camera, and could be seen in the background, arguing with the show’s executive producer.
Although this was perhaps the most interesting moment in the entire show so far, it was left unresolved. Was he just mad because he’s a big baby? Did he not understand how the competition would work? Did he expect something else, like a predetermined outcome?
The rest of the show has been as weird. They’re at locations, but usually without a clear reason. There’s an unseen narrator, but sometimes Buddy or Duff also narrates. Sometimes they do hosting work, too; sometimes the judges host; sometimes the narrator fills in where a host would usually explain something.
There was one judge, Sherry Yard, most recently of The Great American Baking Show, and then suddenly there was also Keegan Gerhard, as if someone at the network had said, We need another judge! and they got him out of Food Network storage.
Sometimes there’s also a guest judge, a person who doesn’t actually give scores but sticks around to give feedback and, you know, judge.
The judges watch Buddy and Duff while they work (except when they don’t), and pick apart all of their choices. That’s fine on Chopped, but here just seems to undermine their authority, even when they make decisions that turn out to work really well. After spending several minutes of shitting on Duff for cutting off his pie crust, the judges finally tasted it, and they were like, Oh, it’s great and then moved on.
The judging is based on a scoring system, and as much as I like the idea of reality competitions having objective evaluations, it’s barely coherent, in part because there are never clearly defined rules for the actual challenges.
With Buddy and Duff separated by a point or two in most categories, it’s useless as a tool for understanding what’s happening. And the tie just makes it all seem like complete bullshit.
Buddy vs. Duff isn’t doing anything to build trust or confidence in either of them as experts, nor is it working overtime to warm Food Network’s audience to Buddy, who’s cocky and abrasive and has clearly made that work for him.
Mostly, it doesn’t seem like they’re having any fun.
These aren’t two Chopped judges competing against each other and having a ball. Instead, Buddy and Duff seem like children brought together by their parents’ marriage who are now forced to share the same king-size bed, and that’s left them both feeling awkward and frustrated.
Also, while they had similar shows on different networks, were they really ever rivals? A showdown between long-time friends or even enemies would have some weight; Buddy vs. Duff feels like it’s just assuming we all cared a lot about finding which one of them was better, and I can’t say I ever even thought that.
Duff told TV Insider they’d only met once before this show, and Buddy told Delish that “throughout the filming of the show and stuff, we became good friends.” Watching that friendship develop would have been nice to see, but the edit has to keep the “versus” in the title alive, so there hasn’t been any camraderie.
Both Buddy and Duff have new shows premiering on Food Network soon, which makes sense except this competition isn’t a great introduction. Sure, they both do great work, but it’s not warming us to either of them. Their parents really should have done a better job of introducing them to the rest of the family before sending them out to play.