For anyone who has watched and loved The Great British Baking Show, but eyed the latest season on Netflix with suspicion, go ahead and whip up a traybake and make a cup of tea—it’s still worth watching, even with new hosts.
Last year the baking contest made headlines when Love Productions switched from the BBC to Channel 4 for more money. Hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc were quick to protest, followed soon by the beloved Mary Berry, one of the show’s two judges. “I am just sad for the audience, who may not be ready for change,” Berry said in a statement.
Mary Berry's statement on #GBBO in full pic.twitter.com/HQVxeC2DGn
— BBC Breaking News (@BBCBreaking) September 22, 2016
As usual, Berry was correct. When I saw the GBBS pop up on Netflix with Prue Leith, the new judge joining Paul Hollywood in place of Berry, and the new hosts, Noel Fielding and Sandy Toksvig, I was resistant. The show I knew and loved was so charming, so good-natured and mild mannered, while still being completely absorbing, that I really was not ready for change.
What I discovered is that as lovely as Berry, Perkins, and Giedroyc were, it’s always been the contestants that make the GBBS what it is. This new collection of passionate amateurs embodies the mix of grandmas who have been whipping up puddings for decades, engineers with a penchant for architectural bakes, moms who make the most spectacular birthday cakes on the block, and contestants whose cultural identities reflect Britain’s colonial past, bringing a wider palette of flavors to the show. Their earnest exuberance and the seriousness with which they glaze a cake or shape a pizza is what carries the show—which is called The Great British Bake Off in its home country, and has slightly altered the name for the American audience out of deference to Pillsbury’s legal team.
The bakes are what set this season apart as even better than usual. They’re more challenging and technique-driven, and more relevant to modern bakers. A pizza challenge was a welcome departure from tea cakes and Chelsea buns, and the old-fashioned specialties the contestants were charged with creating, like steamed puddings, came with brief histories illuminating the way British cookery has evolved over time.
Leith lacks some of Berry’s warmth, and takes Paul Hollywood’s swagger as less of an invitation for winking cheek. She makes a fine judge, even though her signature critique of less-than-ideal bakes, “not worth the calories,” is a bit grating, and in place of Berry’s signature rose-garden-inspired blazers, she sports bold statement necklaces each week.
I missed Sue and Mel much more than Mary Berry, to be honest. Their role on the show was not just to turn out baking puns, but to serve as guardians for the bakers, and for the show’s gentle warmth. Perkins told the Guardian in 2013 that when contestants cried out of frustration, they made a point of standing right next to them, swearing loudly, so the footage could not be used for juicing up the show’s drama.
Fielding and Toksvig are bold choices—their pairing is classic odd couple, and there’s nothing wrong with their performance. If you’ve never watched, this is a great time to jump in, starting with this season. It’s not like you need to know GBBS history to enjoy watching people who love to bake making very challenging projects each week. And without a prior allegiance to Mel, Sue, and Mary, you’re bound to enjoy it even more.
In the past, episodes aired in the UK, then in the US on PBS, which later licensed the show to Netflix. This is the first season that went directly to Netflix. I usually appreciate being able to binge-watch a show, but in the case of the GBBS, I really missed the ritual of looking forward to a new episode each week—and maybe baking something myself to enjoy while watching. You could of course still enact this, if you have a great deal of willpower.
There’s a lot more GBBS coming to Netflix this fall. A new season, plus three seasons that aired in the UK but never made it to US viewers, plus a two-episode holiday special are all slated to launch before year’s end.