Falling out of love with ‘The Great British Baking Show’

Wednesday, December 5, 2018 - 3:58pm

Great British Baking Show

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BBC

I’ve been holding onto some bitterness for a while. Almost a year, actually, ever since I finished the second season of “The Great British Baking Show” last February. I don’t remember how I came across the show initially. It popped up on my Netflix queue sometime last winter and something in the back of my brain told me “Yes, Natalie, give this a shot.” I’d never even been that into food television before, unless you count my parents and me watching “Chuck’s Day Off” on the Cooking Channel or the occasional Martha Stewart. Food Network, despite The Daily’s previous show of support for their work, just never did it for me.

So you can imagine my surprise when I became deeply enthralled in the universe of “The Great British Baking Show.” Because it is, I believe, its own universe, with the green fields of Welford Park and the names of its judges — Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood — existing outside the constraints of space and time. The entire show’s premise isn’t immediately made clear, either. All I could glean as I jumped straight into the second season is that it is set around a bunch of U.K. residents gathering in a tent to bake, be judged and be eliminated by Mary and Paul. A year out and I’m still not completely sure what the star baker stands to win at the end of the show, other than briefly becoming a household name and maybe publishing a cookbook or two. But somehow none of this is ultimately necessary to buy into the show’s intrigue, which I did without question.

Season two of “The Great British Baking Show” became a mode of comfort and escape for me. I would watch as these charming, over-eager British men and women of all ages would either persevere or crumble in their attempts to make pastries, cakes, bread and biscuits that would meet the high standards of Mary and Paul. Each episode is structured the same: There’s a Signature Challenge, which allows each baker to present a version of that week’s baked good they’ve made before; the Technical Challenge, where the bakers must perfectly execute a recipe presented by Mary or Paul and which leaves out important details such as cooking time to see if the baker can still pull it off; and the Showstopper Challenge, where bakers present their own interpretation of a classic baked good. And in each episode, drama would unfold when in the final seconds of a challenge a finishing decoration fell askew or a biscuit crumpled upon coming out of its tin, laying wreckage to an otherwise quality bake.

I bought into all of it — the adorable optimism of bakers like Glenn and Howard and Christine, who were only there to make their families proud, and the overzealous hosts Mel and Sue who moved the show along with their bad puns. I bought into all of it and, in the end, “The Great British Baking Show” betrayed my trust.

It isn’t that I’ve never seen a competition show before. I’ve watched my fair share of “The Bachelor” and old re-runs of “Iron Chef” glimmer through my childhood memory. But in accepting “The Great British Baking Show” for what it’s worth — its innocence, its purity, its all together feel-good nature that felt like, even when someone was sent home, it wasn’t truly the end for them — I didn’t realize that you can’t expect to predict the ending of a show whose premise you don’t understand. I’m a firm believer, after devoting my unreserved attention to every detail of this 10 episode season, that Kimberley should have been 2013’s winner. Even Ruby, the college student who I didn’t particularly like for most of the season, had performed better for most of the season than Frances, who ultimately took home the title of Star Baker. I was quite honestly shocked that Frances even made it to the final episode of the series. While her bakes often qualified for number one or two spots in the Showstopper challenges, her technical bakes repeatedly fell flat, including her adaptation of pretzels in the final episode. Kimberley, on the other hand, showed intuition in the craft and demonstrated growth, performing better as each week passed.

In retrospect, I should have expected things would not go the way I wanted them to for Kimberley. My concern began around episode six, the sweet dough week, when Howard was sent home instead of Glenn. Despite his inability to master the technical bakes, Howard’s signature and showstopper bakes had so much more assurity, and he always executed them with confidence (we all recall his Picasso Sun Bread from episode two). Not only that, but he was consistently a favorite of Paul and Mary’s, with Glenn acting as a more alienating figure with his frequently panicked execution when faced with emergencies under the tent.

I feared early on in the season that Paul’s evident bias in favor of Ruby would be the only factor pushing her to the finals. But as the episodes passed, she began proving herself with baked goods like a Citrus Tea Loaf and interesting twists on classic goods that incorporated ingredients like saffron, proving Paul and Mary’s suspicion of such ingredients wrong. Ruby, however, never had a believable shot at winning the show. Framed as a judge favorite from the beginning, Ruby’s win would have been too expected and would have glaringly juxtaposed with her constant anxiety under the baking tent and vocalized self-doubt.

The shock over Frances’s win truly stems from the fact that she was never extraordinary enough to stand out among the other two. She was the one among these three women with the fewest Star Baker wins, and never baked anything that stuck in my mind as an impressive feat. Even on her bad weeks, Kimberley still produced at least one that stunned (like her vegetable cake from week eight, which somehow lost to Ruby). Yet somehow Paul and Mary overlooked this, and I blame mostly Paul and his goatee for this tragedy, because Mary Berry can do no wrong.

Since my heartbreak, I haven’t been able to return to “The Great British Baking Show.” I don’t see it as worthwhile to once again become attached to characters only to see them ultimately deprived of their due fortune. I briefly tried again over the summer, jumping into season five only to find out Mary Berry had departed the show. This was the final betrayal. “The Great British Baking Show,” while serving as a brief respite from the gaudy reality TV saturating our lives, could do no more for me.