Since social distancing practices began early in the year, 2020 has seen people go to great lengths to keep themselves entertained. For some that meant clearing out a Netflix queue that has been accumulating titles since “The Sopranos,” Season 4, Disc 3 was perpetually checked out at their local Blockbuster. Others stumbled forth like zombies, finding life disincentivized without professional sports to dull the pain. And then there were the bakers.
God bless the bakers, every one, and that herd mentality that drove them all into the kitchen to bake loaf after loaf of bread, leaving flour and yeast in short supply. (Carbohydrate levels, however, had never been higher.)
The point is, when people were faced with trying times, they sought distraction. They wanted comfort.
And they’re in luck because the most delectable slice of pop culture comfort food has returned, as Netflix airs the latest season of “The Great British Baking Show,” which is currently the best distraction from 2020 and the best representation of the year itself: It’s stress baking, anxiety, and cake fails all the way down, baby.
Since it infiltrated American shores in 2014 via PBS, “The Great British Bake Off” — and it has to be said, while the series goes by the “Baking Show” moniker in the U.S. due to Pillsbury’s trademark on “bake-off,” the U.K. title is miles better — has provided a charming antidote to so many American culinary competition shows which thrive on sabotage and screaming.
Within the tent, bakers would toil over ovens, poring over their own recipes or trying to puzzle out challenges as lobbed by the judges, and all the while cheering on their competition or marveling at their skills. Not only is the series suffused with sunshine (it is a tent, after all) it’s suffused with kindness.
No matter the situation, “GBBO” felt like a world unto itself, devoid of pressing real life concerns, where the only thing that mattered was if you and your fellow bakers can make chou pastry towers that are self-sustaining. It’s wholly absorbing. When you watch, you are transported somewhere else.
For better or worse, that’s not the case this season. Filmed in July, instead of traveling back and forth between their homes and the tent each week, contestants were kept in the first-ever “GBBO” bubble. While nowhere near as complex as what the NBA cooked up in Florida, “GBBO” filmed the season in six weeks with a skeleton crew also kept within the bubble, all in the pursuit of maintaining a safe environment from COVID-19.
From the start, the season felt different, if only because viewers knew that to exist in this time, the season would have to be different. The pandemic comes up regularly and the contestants seem a bit on edge, as though flagging without the in-person support of family and friends or even the small comfort of sleeping in their own beds. It feels, well, a little like every other reality-competition show, with bakers facing unfamiliar challenges in unfamiliar surroundings, which heightens everyone’s anxiety.
And yet, it’s appropriate that even “GBBO” can’t escape the clutches of 2020 unscathed.
Take the challenges, for instance. Some people will tell you that “GBBO” is in decline, due to the growing difficulty of the show’s technical challenges, during which bakers are given a partial recipe and must exhibit enough baking knowhow to produce the product as requested by the judges.
While it’s true that technical challenges appear to have grown exponentially more difficult in later seasons — in Season 2, bakers had to make focaccia, and last season? Sicilian cassatelles — that’s the nature of reality series. “GBBO” has now been around for a decade and it would be easy for an intrepid competitor to go through old seasons and make sure they were well-versed in recipes, styles, and topics the show too-often revisits. Thus, the series ends up in a position where it needs to constantly bring in new and differing dishes, which inevitably are more difficult.
That said, other shows are forced to institute more demanding challenges because the quality of competitor grows, something that wouldn’t necessarily be as much of a factor on a series looking for home bakers.
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No, what makes “GBBO” the show of the moment is how delicately unhinged it has grown this season. Maybe it’s the addition of “Little Britain” creator Matt Lucas as co-presenter. Maybe it’s the fact that the bakers are in isolation from their families. But it’s probably because 2020 is a strange fever dream from which it seems we’ll never escape.
Hearken back to what feels like a lifetime ago — it was July — when everyone on the internet was freaking out because everything was cake. That sounds like a joke, but it really, really isn’t. In short, people discovered the work of Tuba Geçkil, who makes photorealistic cakes so lifelike that the internet as a whole was, as they say, shook.
And Geçkil doesn’t only do cakes of inanimate objects, she also does cakes of people. Can you see where this is going? I hope so.
For the first showstopper challenge of the season, bakers were asked to make a “celebrity hero cake bust” and the results were absolutely jaw-dropping. It was like “Nailed It!” and “High Maintenance” had a baby and the baby was made of cake and also the baby looked like Little Face from “Dick Tracy.” They were bad. Real bad.
The producers of “GBBO” had to know what they were setting contestants up for. I’d argue that there’s no way either of the judges could manage making a celebrity hero bust they’d feel comfortable showing to people. And yet, it happened. This is 2020 decision-making. You know it’s a bad idea to cut your own hair, but when else will you get an opportunity to attempt something so ill-advised? “Throw caution to the wind,” producers seem to be saying. “Shave your head! Give yourself a tattoo! Make a cake of Bill Bryson!”
Well into October, we find ourselves still seeking comfort from the volatile reality that is this year. “GBBO,” wholly unintentionally, has managed to transform itself into a new kind of comfort food. One that acknowledges the instability of outside factors and the impact that a pandemic can have on every facet of our lives, but also humanity’s resilience in the face of insurmountable challenges and the ache inside many of us to create something beautiful or nourishing or sustaining.
“GBBO” feels like a brother-in-arms as we all keep moving toward a future that remains uncertain. When life gave it lemons, it threw its hands up in the air, and said “Fuck it. Let’s make a pie.”
And so did we.
“The Great British Baking Show” is streaming on Netflix. New episodes premiere each Friday in the United States.