Over the past decade, adaptions of The Great British Bake-Off in the United States have come out of the Hollywood oven again and again.
That began with CBS’s overbaked, Jeff Foxworthy-hosted The American Baking Competition, and since then, there have been five more seasons and three different names, all on ABC: The Great Holiday Baking Show, The Great American Baking Show: Holiday Edition (twice), and The Great American Baking Show (twice).
In that time, there were six different hosts and five different judges, and one season that disappeared mid-run. All have been produced by Love Productions, offering an opportunity to see what three different networks now—CBS, ABC, and now Roku—have asked for.
The ABC version had its charms, but changed literally every season, so it never got traction.
While networks pretending that earlier seasons don’t exist usually drives me nuts, I’m not as disconcerted by The Roku Channel deciding to call its first season The Great American Baking Show season 1—instead of season 6, or 7 if you include the CBS version.
That’s because Roku’s The Great American Baking Show is the closest an American network has come to transporting the original to the States.
The Roku Channel—a free streaming service that does not require one of these, and is even on the web—has licensed the first seven seasons of GBBO, and also the celebrity specials and aftershow An Extra Slice.
Roku gave us a hint of what to expect with a fantastic celebrity holiday special last December. This new civilian season isn’t as immediately charming, because it’s not stocked with a cast of talented entertainers, and it also follows in GBBO’s footsteps with a pointless bit.
This one opens with attempts at humor about British accents that is beneath the talent of all involved. It acts, for some strange reason, as if we have no idea what The Great British Baking Show is.
Thankfully, it’s uphill from there. The nine bakers, who will compete over six episodes, have a mix of backgrounds and skills, and are introduced with the usual charming slice-of-life packages.
For the first showstopper challenge, which asks for 3D scenes from their lives. They construct everything from a gay Chicago beach to a rehab center where one contestant recovered from a brain injury.
There are quite a few disasters that suggest this small cast might not be capable of the challenges of the tent, but in the second episode’s showstopper, illusion cakes, they’re all truly outstanding work.
Besides the fewer number of contestants (nine) and episodes (six), there are other changes. Instead of being filmed at Welford Park, The Great American Baking Show has erected its very familiar tent here, in the gardens next to Heatherden Hall at Pinewood Studios.
While the UK version actually has a full week between its weekend tapings, this show filmed using the US version’s typical schedule: two days of baking, two days off to practice, according to one of the contestants.
Despite those differences, what unfolds is mostly indistinguishable from the British version.
The structure, the tent, the three challenges. We also get the illustrations of the bakers’ plans, Paul and Prue’s usual judging, and Paul’s goddamn handshake.
Yes, The Great American Baking Show also brings the worst of The Great British Bake-Off to America, too.
The British version has been introducing increasingly absurd challenges instead of just repeating classics. It’s forgetting the lessons of the early seasons, where the drama came not from failures in a Nailed It-style challenge, but from the challenges of baking even the simplest things under time constraints.
The preview shows a future Great American Baking Show technical challenge involving hamburgers, because as we all know, frying meat patties is as much of a key baking skill as making guacamole and tortillas for tacos.
Speaking of tacos: In the preview, Paul Hollywood corrects a baker’s pronunciation of “basil,” which is a hell of a choice for Paul “tack-oh” Hollywood.
Yes, Paul and Prue are doing their usual thing, and it works as well as it does for the flagship show.
A minor spoiler: Prue is absent for the second episode due to illness, which throws the whole thing off balance. Ellie sits in for Prue during the technical tasting in the tiny tent, but otherwise it’s Paul Paul Paul, with him making all the judgments and decisions. The show is already has too much Paul, so this is not a great turn. Thankfully, she’s back in episode three, but because that’s Bread Week, the focus goes back to Paul’s expertise yet again.
The new personalities in the tent are hosts Ellie Kemper (The Office, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) and Zach Cherry (Severance, You). They’re finding their way, as a duo and in the tent, but quickly bring their own charm. Some things work; others are just wastes of time, like the poorly conceived cold open.
Their banter with the contestants is more purposeful than Noel Fielding’s disruptions. And they have some good jokes and banter. After Ellie gives a two-hour time call, Zach says, “But don’t worry: that’s still plenty of time to make crucial mistakes.”
“I’m rather hoping these bakers will bring something a bit new to the tent,” Prue says at the start of the series. “I’m expecting unusual bakes, or at least unusual flavors.”
What does the American side of the production bring to the tent? (Paul Hollywood said in an interview that there was a “blend of American and U.K. camera crew and sound crew” and “a lot of execs over from America.”)
Thankfully, it’s nothing unusual.
The camera work seems a little clumsier sometimes, the editing a touch more desperate. There are some weird, super-fast, unnecessary cutaways to home footage Some cymbal crashes sneak in during the first judging, and it just contributes to making this feel one unnecessary notch up on the volume wheel.
During the technical bake judging, either the contestants have dramatic physical reactions to their own bake being judged, or the editors have inserted reactions to make us think they’re reacting. Either way, no thanks.
The magic of those early years of The Great British Baking Show has faded from the franchise, especially with the shift to Channel 4 and exits of hosts Mel and Sue, which has left the show trying to one-up itself, instead of just leaning on what it does best.
Thankfully, The Roku Channel’s version of The Great American Baking Show does not attempt to Americanize the proceedings, taking the franchise even further away from its roots.
Roku has already ordered a second season, so perhaps we’ll have a regular, American version of this once-groundbreaking, still very charming and watchable competition to look forward to every year.
The Great American Baking Show
Roku’s version does an excellent job of reproducing what the British version currently offers, for better and for worse. B
What works for me:
- Reproducing almost everything from the British version
- Zach Cherry and Ellie Kemper’s jokes and chemistry, often
What could be better:
- Less of whatever notes Roku gave that led to minor but unnecessary tweaks
- Challenges that return to the basics
- Less Paul
Friday 26th of May 2023
Hard to get very invested in such a short show, but it was enjoyable for what it was. Painful-to-watch opening segments by what turned out to be two mediocre hosts.
Saturday 13th of May 2023
I didn’t know about it but started watching because of this post. Thanks for the info!
Monday 8th of May 2023
I tried watching the first episode. Couldn't finish it. The "background" music is too loud. It drowns out everyone's comments. Not sure I'll continue watching.
Saturday 6th of May 2023
So do you think those cookie sculptures were really underbaked? The bakers looked surprised at that critique.
Friday 5th of May 2023
Thank you for helping me find the reality shows I would never know about!