A day after newly minted Prime Minister Boris Johnson lost the support of 21 Tories and the government’s fragile voting majority collapsed, British viewers turned on their television sets to watch a bunch of variously inoffensive contestants cordially bake biscuits. “The Great British Bake Off” (or, as its American viewers know it, “The Great British Baking Show”) is back for its 10th season, and it’s sticking ever closer to the brief in order to produce a batch of uniform, perfectly acceptable hours of feel-good entertainment.
“The Great British Baking Show” is a quintessentially British affair, boasting impeccable manners, dry-as-flour humor and traditionalist pomp ever since it first drifted across the pond on a PBS-piloted paraplane. It has since been added to Netflix U.S.’s collection, and the streaming site, in contravention to its typical binge-upload format, now airs weekly episodes of the new season three days behind the U.K.’s schedule.
In the show’s nine years and 10 seasons, it has seen a controversial — well, controversial for a show about bread — move from mainstream BBC programming to the more artsy niche Channel Four. The latter network has had two previous seasons to perfect its tone, which ranged from refreshingly charming at best to frustratingly gimmicky at worst — biscuit chandeliers, anyone?
To the relief of certain viewers and, it seems, bakers, this season seems to have finally landed on an approachable playfulness, pairing standard challenges with the bakers’ buoyant personalities.
With this carefully crafted formula in mind, to review one episode is to review another — and the most recent “Biscuit Week,” the second episode of the season, withstood the litmus test (or ought it be the lemon curd test?). Bakers churned through trays of sticky nougat, impossibly British fig rolls and biscuits of various shapes and sizes to produce free-standing “showstopper” sculptures. The latter task was an upcycled one from 2014 — a previous cohort of bakers in season five was given an identical exercise — but nobody would be able to tell based on the Instagram-ready end products this year. There’s just something about geography teacher Alice’s comically round sheep with pudgy macaron wool, teetering atop a neon green field of shortbread cookie, that feels appropriate in a post-Brexit world.
Even more unimpeachable than the bakes are the bakers themselves, who were thankfully introduced this round by way of family fruitcake recipes rather than massive baked portraits of their own faces. This year’s cohort has the show’s youngest competitor distribution yet, with Henry and Jamie, two 20-year-olds, frantically fanning their unfrosted creations alongside Phil, the most senior contestant at 56. Viewers searching for the classic “Great British Baking Show” warmth and camaraderie can rest easy – two episodes in and this baker’s dozen of presumed competitors already seem the best of friends, piling on to assist or comfort when a fellow baker has fallen behind — or simply fallen.
“Don’t, please, if you get upset I’ll cry,” marketing consultant Priya pleaded fellow baker Michael in one tense scene of biscuit gluing mishaps. “I’ll start crying if you start crying.” The two hugged — gingerly, to avoid flour-covered hands — and both their eyes became noticeably redder. It does make one wonder about the state of the nation — just what might be accomplished if we threw a couple of Parliament representatives into a tent and forced them to bond over shaping tuiles by hand?
Judging-wise, individualistic flair and experimentation can be a hit or miss on “The Great British Baking Show.” At its foundation — built upon Victoria sponge sandwiches and topped with Jaffa cakes, no doubt — the show’s Britishness has always hinted at a particular type of British to laud and shower in cake confetti. Some classic ways of critiquing contestants of color who incorporate childhood spices and recipes into scones and cookies include, “your flavors are good, very special” or “I didn’t like your flavors.” Just last season, baker Kim-Joy saw her buko pandan flavoring uncharitably rechristened as “revolting.”
“I think that could be delicious. Sort of reminding me of frog spawn,” presenter Noel Fielding joked. Though personal preference is invariably part of food scoring, the elevation of ever-basic citrus marmalades and hazelnut chocolate sauces (boutique Nutella, honestly) gets stale. It is heartening that so far this season there seems to be more honest judging and less culturally insular judgement, along with a self-awareness for the judges’ own insensitivities. When judge Paul Hollywood said a baker’s matcha-scented biscuits tasted stale, fellow judge Prue Leith jumped in: “Maybe you don’t like the flavor of matcha?”
As the sum of its ingredients, “The Great British Baking Show” grows better with age and delivers a palette cleanser for the unpleasantness of the political day to day. And if any American viewers experience the chilly intrusion of reality when baker Amelia makes an innocent A$AP Rocky reference, well, we only have ourselves to blame.