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Buddy vs. Duff season 3: A tiebreaker between friends, but why is it a competition?

Buddy vs. Duff has had quite the journey. In 2018, the stars of two competing shows—Duff Goldman’s 2006 show Ace of Cakes on Food Network, which was followed in 2009 by Buddy Valastro’s Cake Boss on TLC—became part of the same corporation when Discovery bought Scripps’ networks, with Food Network continued to prioritize entertainment over information.

What better way to bring two former rivals together, and introduce them to the others’ fans, than to have them compete? That was the idea, at least, behind Buddy vs. Duff season 1, which turned out to be a bizarre disaster of a show, starting with Buddy having a temper-tantrum and walking off the set after the Cake Boss lost the first challenge.

It didn’t even live up to its title, because Duff and Buddy’s assistants, Geof and Ralph, were equal collaborators in design and construction. (During season one, Duff tweeted that he “really pushed hard for this entire contest to be one on one” because “I felt that the fans wanted to see Buddy and I head to head. That didn’t happen.” He added a shrug emoji.)

Although season one was a wreck, it was the highest-rated show on Food Network in 2019, so back it came for a season two.

Instead of just one assistant for Buddy and Duff, they each brought in big teams, which had the effect of somewhat sidelining its stars. It was a much better show, though somehow Buddy won season 2 despite only actually winning three of eight competitions, thanks to very sketchy judges’ scoring. It just didn’t seem like a legitimate competition; it seemed like a way to repair Buddy’s ego.

“NO SEASON 3! NO!” Duff tweeted at the end of season two. “I was just pissed. I hated it,” Duff said in “Buddy vs. Duff: Preheat,” a special that aired before the Buddy vs. Duff season 3 premiere.

With last year’s special Buddy vs. Christmas, it seemed like the future of the franchise was Buddy Valastro competing against inanimate beloved holidays, I guess.

But miraculously, the show is back for a third season. “The two biggest names in cakes are about to go at it again, for the tiebreaker,” the narrator said at the start of “Preheat.” For that, Buddy vs. Duff has changed its format once again—and there are visible changes in its stars, too.

Buddy and Duff are now BFFs, and season 3 has changed

Buddy vs. Duff 3 will have Buddy Valastro's team (top) facing off against Duff Goldman's team (bottom).
Buddy vs. Duff 3 will have Buddy Valastro’s team (top) facing off against Duff Goldman’s team (bottom). (Photo by Food Network)

At the end of season one, Duff said in an interview that he and Buddy actually became friends during filming. Season one didn’t actually show us that or embrace it—why let reality get in the way of your narrative—but the show is now full-on embracing their friendship.

“I appreciate you,” Buddy said at the beginning of Buddy vs. Duff 3. He was referring to Duff’s support after Buddy’s gruesome injury last fall. The pre-season special actually played both the 911 call from Lisa, his wife, and showed us security camera footage from Buddy’s (massive) house, plus blood splatter on the wall near the bowling pinsetter that punctured his hand.

Duff and Buddy are good enough friends that, as we saw from behind-the-scenes footage during the taping of Spring Baking Championship, Buddy had texted Duff a photo of his injury—a photo Nancy Fuller refused to look at (“no, no!”).

Their friendship a much better place to start from than grudge match approach of season one. Yet both the pre-season special and the first episode tried to establish that each of the stars is hampered: Buddy by his hand strength, which is only “about 80 percent back,” and Duff by the fact that he has an infant. Really.

When Buddy tried to frame Duff’s new kid as a “disadvantage” while talking with Lisa, she immediately pushed back against that. But in an interview, even Duff contributed, saying, “I’m exhausted.” It feels like the producers and/or network are desperately trying to establish that both men are hamstrung: Buddy by his damaged hand, Duff by his baby. It’s bizarre framing, trying to compare these two things.

Buddy vs. Duff 3 has also changed its format, again. Buddy and Duff and their teams will never be in the same place, setting up their cake displays in studios in L.A. (Team Duff) and New Jersey (Team Buddy). The studios seem upgraded, with large screens. Last season”s judges (Kimberly Bailey, Florian Bellanger, and Waylynn Lucas, who weren’t very helpful anyway) have been dropped and replaced by 50 judges, who are watching via Zoom and will judge on a 1 to 5 scale.

Why have three when you can have 50! That format means each team can earn 250 possible points for each challenge, which is a more coherent and much more transparent scoring system. In episode one, Duff won again: 228 to 217.

Here’s the real question: “Why does it have to be a competition? Why it can’t it just be two people making great cakes? Why?” That’s in quotes because it’s exactly what Lisa, Buddy’s wife, asks him in the “Preheat” special, and I could not agree more.

I’ll add this question: Why can’t why we see them actually decorate real cakes? You know, the culinary art and craft that they each became famous for doing really well.

What Buddy and Duff’s teams create is often impressive and detailed. In episode one, using a safari theme as inspiration, they created massive animals: a lion eating a impala from Duff, a rhinoceros surrounded by water with a hippo and an alligator in it. The sculpting and painting was quite beautiful and realistic. (Future episodes will include challenges focused on the ancient world, pirates, cars, insects, and monsters.)

But they’re really in a building competition, not a cake-decorating competition. Both teams are building massive objects out of metal and wood, held together with glue and screws, sometimes with lights, pyrotechnics, or moving parts. In the premiere, both teams used chainsaws: to cut wood and cake.

Slabs of cake are eventually slapped on these structures, shaped, frosted, and decorated, but no one is eating any of this, unless you like your Rice Krispie treats—excuse me, rice cereal treats—with cardboard and aluminum foil. It’s a gigantic waste of food, but at least it’s not as much of a waste of time as it was in season one.

So why can’t they just make real cakes? Why does this have to be a competition?

The answer, of course, is because entertainment matters more than information. There is nothing to be learned from this new season, this repeat of a match-up. There’s nothing it will tell us about either baker or their team; there’s no amount of points that will And it’s not really a tiebreaker, since both season two has such a big asterisk by it, thanks to Buddy’s “win” by 1.5 points despite Duff’s majority of victories.

But as Discovery’s Chief Lifestyle Brands Officer Kathleen Finch told me back when she led Scripps’ networks, “Our job is to make people want to watch television.” So that’s the priority. I get it.

Still: Do they really need a competition and artificial stakes (INJURY! BABY!) to do that? Will this competition ever end, no matter how many times Duff wins, or tweets that he’s done?

My guess is no, so we might as well prepare now an even more supersized fourth season, perhaps with 5,000 judges watching as the teams try to make cakes from aboard NASA’s Vomit Comet—call it Buddy vs. Duff 4: Cakes on a Plane.

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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