This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
It’s been a pummeling few weeks of heart- and hope-bruising news, contributing to an emotional state so brittle that I did, indeed, cry while watching an episode of Guy’s Grocery Games on the Food Network last night.
The year 2020 and its soul-shattering twists revealed multiple times this week that there is no floor to its nefariousness, to the point of which, just to keep things food-related, it turns out that Subway—a fast-food indulgence for which we refuse to be shamed—is no longer legally allowed to call its sandwich bookends “bread.” In Ireland, at least, a court ruled that the chain’s recipe contains too much sugar to qualify as a tax-exempt staple food, in fact almost five times the limit that would allow it to be lawfully defined as bread.
On top of everything else going on in the world, I now also need to process the fact that I’ve apparently been eating foot-long roast beef cake for the last three decades.
All of this is to say that the return of The Great British Baking Show last week on Netflix should have been a ray of light to grasp at from the dungeon of despair, finally something good to distract, to soothe, to heal. To use a term popularized by the bucolic overseas cooking show, these are real soggy-bottom times. We could all use the metaphorical morale boost of a good bake.
This was written before, but will publish after, the new season’s second episode is available stateside. So we can only judge the premiere when we say that, while the retreat to the countryside tent where the biggest care in the world is whether the meringue has achieved proper stiff peaks is a blissful mental sojourn away from the existential carnage of what it means to otherwise be alive right now, there’s something that seems off and oddly dissatisfying about it. Like when the umpteenth baker fails to realize that, yes, of course the rose water is going to “come through” too strong.
We’re not the only person to notice this. (TV-critic friends of mine at USA Today and Decider have been on this beat since last season.) But I am a person with rage to channel, so to keep from venting about the few million or so other atrocities of the world right now, I’m going to join their ranks and yell about this instead, knowing full well that I am blowing the slight annoyances of this otherwise delightful little show far out of proportion.
It’s dejecting from the start to learn, for example, that the show is not entirely the escapist fantasy we so desperately need right now. It turns out that even in The Great British Baking Show’s famous tent, there is COVID.
Much ado is made about the season’s baking “bubble.” The pandemic has forced production, for the first time, to sequester the contestants and judges for the entirety of filming, whereas they used to return to their hometowns and day jobs during the week.
This isn’t exactly a revolutionary measure; pretty much every other reality competition series does this, even before anyone knew what coronavirus was. But the contestants going home during the week was one of the show’s most adorable quirks, a doubling down on the notion that these are all amateur bakers whose lives weren’t beholden to reality-TV fame.
There’s a new host joining Noel Fielding: Little Britain star Matt Lucas replaces Sandi Tosvig, who departed after last season. If you can stretch your brains back 47 years to when Mel and Sue were the show’s affable co-hosts—it might as well have been that long ago—you remember that the role used to be a bolstering one, echoing the enthusiastic niceness that just seemed to waft through the series like the smell of fresh-baked biscuits.
Egged on by Lucas, the new hosts seem to be engaged in some focus-stealing schtick. But there shouldn’t be a schtick. That’s why we, in the land of Sarah Palin dressed as a tie-dyed bear rapping to “Baby Got Back” while Jenny McCarthy shrieks “I dunno, is that Oprah!?”, so appreciated the simple reality series. It was schtick-free. Some people baked cakes. Sometimes they were good. If they weren’t, well that’s OK, too. Good try.
That ethos seems to have taken over the challenges, too. If the task at hand each week used to measure if the contestants could competently make classic baked goods, it’s increasingly migrated towards the kind of cake crafting that favors Instagram-ready aesthetics and spectacle over taste and technique. Did I howl with laughter over the tragic Nailed It!-ready results of the premiere’s showstopper challenge, which asked the bakers to make busts of their famous heroes? Absolutely. But at the same time, I’m not watching Nailed It!. It all felt somehow inappropriate, or at least incongruous to the show that we love, cherish, and so desperately need right now. I don’t want to see baking fails! Fails are all around me right now. Show me a nice bake!
(Obviously those are Lupita Nyong’o and Freddie Mercury cakes.)
This is much ado about almost nothing. The Great British Baking Show is still fine. I will still watch it each week. And I will engage in the only thing in this world I am still truly passionate about: complaining about it, endlessly.