Baking can easily go sideways, as The Great British Baking Show has demonstrated so many times over its 14 seasons. Too little or too much time in the oven; the wrong temperature; too much or too little kneading; an ingredient that seems promising but negatively impacts the rest.
The Great British Baking Show has never itself been a complete, inedible disaster, but it’s like one of those contestants who begin the season producing exceptional edible works of art, and then keeps making mistake after mistake.
The first year during the pandemic (and the election in the U.S.), The Great British Bake-Off was there for us, a welcome respite against isolation and fear. Yet the show was moving further and further away from its core.
Challenges became overcomplicated and theme weeks were ill-conceived, culminating in the obnoxious Mexican Week, an excuse for the hosts to do cliché racist bits and for Paul Hollywood to pretend he understood tacos because he went to Mexico that one time. That was a low for the franchise.
It’s taken seven seasons, but The Great British Bake-Off has found its way back to the warm glow that made it such a winning format, and my pick for reality TV show of the 2010s.
What’s happened, improbably, is that all The Great British Baking Show’s weak spots, the soggy bottoms, solidified. It noticed its mistakes and re-made the parts that weren’t working.
That’s evident throughout the episodes that have aired so far, starting with judge Prue Leith telling Nicky, “Tell us about your beaver.” The ensuing laughter that took over the tent was a reminder of just how silly and fun this show can be.
Alison Hammond brought joy back to the tent
Alison Hammond deserves considerable credit for GBBO’s rebirth. She’s the perfect host for these proceedings, a living embodiment of its joyful spirit.
From her first moments in the tent, she’s projected an excitement to be there and for every part of the show, and that in turn has made me more excited to watch.
While Noel’s interactions with the bakers still consists of silly jokes, Alison approaches them with reassurance and empathy.
She asks questions or offers thoughts without distracting them, and can still be quite silly, like when she rolled over an empty workstation—twice.
She’s the perfect counterbalance to Noel, grounding his tendency to drift away or go too far, and together they’re a great team. Their time calls are actually just time calls!
While no pair has been able to replicate the original duo of Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding were a good fit. Sandi’s exit was a major loss, and her replacement, the actor Matt Lucas, treated the whole thing like a big joke. He did great voice-overs, but his interactions with the contestants and Noel were increasingly churlish.
Alison certainly banters with the contestants, but knows when the mood calls for a joke and when it calls for a hug.
Besides years spent as a TV host, Alison also has extensive reality TV experience. Since 2002, when she was a Big Brother UK houseguest, Alison has been on several shows as a contestant, including The Great Stand Up to Cancer Bake Off.
Knowing what it’s like on both sides of the camera—instead of just performing to a camera—is really working, and is what The Great British Baking Show desperately needed.
Producers fixed what was broken
Earlier this year, the production acknowledged the problems and promised a “back to basics” season. And incredibly, they’ve delivered a season that truly has put the train back on the tracks.
I did not expect that. For years now, both the production company, Love Productions, and network, Channel 4, have been just fine with so many of the weak spots, from Matt and Noel’s shenanigans to the national theme weeks and their accompanying racist bits.
From casting Alison Hammond to returning the show to simpler—but still challenging!—bakes, the production has returned to what made the show so great in its previous BBC life.
Showstoppers now are still impressive but doable, not ridiculous monstrosities. The technical bakes still have thin instructions and rely on the bakers’ knowledge, but they’re also bakes they’re more likely to be familiar with.
Even the Hollywood Handshake, which contestants lust over, has been scaled back from their exponential rise. There is still a regrettable reverence for them—and still nothing for Prue Leith to offer. A Prue Pat on the Back? A Prue Point? A Prue Pinch? She needs something!
A happy—and talented!—cast
There’s something wonderful about the cast assembled for season 14 (Netflix calls it “collection 11”; here’s my guide to which Great British Bake-Off season you’re watching).
A season of even a storied reality TV show can sink with a bad cast, but that is not the case this season. It’s the perfect group for
It’s the usual mix of younger and older bakers, and people with diverse backgrounds. Bake-Off has always been good about reflecting the world without calling attention to it, and that’s continued this season.
As a group, they’re just, well, cute. And talented! But their charm makes the talent fun to watch.
Nicki’s stories, delivered in her Scottish accent; Tasha’s surprise at her own success; Saku’s laugh, even at the worst moments in her bakes. When Saku and Alison laugh together, I lose it—and then watch again.
The cast has also offered its usual surprises. I was convinced Matty would be a relatively early exit based on his first weekend in the tent, and he rebounded to star baker during chocolate week.
That’s what The Great British Bake-Off has done, too: appeared to be limited in its ability to fix its mistakes, and then rising again to the top.