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The Great British Baking Show’s tear-stained “Final” portends a permanent tonal shift

Screenshot: The Great British Baking Show
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When Love Productions moved The Great British Bake Off from the publicly-funded, ad-free BBC One to the commercially-funded Channel 4, many fans feared the show would lose its wholesome charm. Then series eight premiered, with Prue Leith stepping in for judge Mary Berry and Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding taking over hosting duties from Mel and Sue, and fans’ fears were laid to rest. The show took pains to recreate the show’s peaceful, supportive aesthetic and tone, and it seemed Bake Off was in good hands. There were a few blips in series nine, but overall, the show seemed on track. Series 10 has been much more controversial. Questionable eliminations and underwhelming challenges plagued the middle of the season, and the likelihood of a satisfying final seemed dubious at best. Fortunately, The Great British Baking Show has once again proven doubters wrong, delivering an engaging, well-structured close to the season. Unfortunately, the finale also underscores the thread of emotional exploitation present throughout the season, a new apparent staple of this era of the show.

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The difference is felt right from the top of the episode. Rather than opening with a highlight reel of the finalists’ greatest successes, the finale begins with a montage of the season’s biggest mishaps. After attempting to build suspense with dramatic voice-over and one-on-one interviews, it’s time to head to the tent. The signature challenge for the final is a surprising one: The bakers must make the ultimate chocolate cake. That’s it. No fancy brief, no specifics, just make a delicious, finale-worthy chocolate cake. As a viewer, this is somewhat underwhelming, but for the contestants, the open-ended nature of the task is daunting. Too straightforward, and they’ll get dinged for lack of creativity. Too finicky, and they’ll be scolded for straying from the textures and flavors that have made chocolate cake a classic. There’s some foreshadowing throughout the segment, but mostly, the producers take advantage of the stress-light round to cut to interviews with the bakers’ friends and families.

In the end, David’s chocolate, Armagnac, and prune cake is great on look and texture, but falls down on flavor, with the brandy overpowering the chocolate. Alice’s chocolate, pear, ginger, and maple cake looks a bit wobbly—her middle layer ran into trouble—but tastes good, though Paul and Prue disagree over whether it’s chocolatey enough. As for Steph, her Black Forest cake may be a throwback, and may be slightly over-baked, but it’s delicious and a good iteration of a classic. No one hits it out of the park, but David, Alice, and Steph all come out of the signature round more or less unscathed, a prospect they hope to repeat in the technical.

Having learned from the fiasco that was series nine’s fire pit final technical, Paul sets a far more appropriate challenge this season. The bakers must make six twice-baked Stilton soufflés, accompanied by thin, crisp lavosh crackers. Steph’s grimace on hearing the brief sums up the bakers’ reactions nicely; particularly with a tight, 70 minute time limit, this is going to be tricky. Soufflés are notoriously difficult, deflating if you even look at them the wrong way. However, twice-baked soufflés are more forgiving, puffing back up when returned to the oven. There’s usually considerable time between when each round finishes and when judging begins, as the crew needs to tidy up the work stations, so opting for a twice-baked soufflé is a nice way to get around the production challenges these delicious and challenging bakes present.

The judges’ example technical, twice-baked Stilton soufflés with lavosh crackers
Screenshot: The Great British Baking Show
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David is in his element, confident as always in the technical, but right away Alice and Steph run into trouble. Alice has never made a roux before, a fact that surprises Sandi, and Steph over-whips her egg whites. While Alice seems to find her stride, Steph keeps running into trouble. She over-fills her ramekins and uses cold water for her bain-marie instead of the hot water needed to steam her bake in the oven. These mistakes compound and when it’s time to turn out her soufflés, she’s met with soupy, raw batter. Here is when the episode turns. Overwhelmed, Steph starts to tear up, losing her composure as she struggles to power through a mistake she knows has cost her the title.

In the first seven seasons, when contestants started to melt down, hosts Mel and Sue would come over and console them, shielding them from the cameras and using profanity to ensure the BBC wouldn’t be able to air the footage. They were very protective of the contestants and did their best to make sure they weren’t exploited to gin up emotional beats for the show. This season has featured several teary moments, but unlike in previous seasons, the camera has stayed right in the bakers’ faces, with one of the hosts eventually stepping in to buck up the struggling baker. Noel and Sandi seem to have strong relationships with the bakers and come across well, but swooping in to reassure a contestant is one thing. Making sure their breakdowns can’t be aired is something else entirely. By highlighting these emotionally fraught moments, rather than granting the bakers privacy until they regain their composure, Baking Show has sacrificed its defining element, its kindness. One instance of this would be concerning. Two would be disappointing. In season 10, it’s happened over and over, and Steph’s tears through the technical are just the latest example. Baking Show used to be better than this. In season 10, it’s just another reality show happy to exploit its contestants’ vulnerabilities.

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When judging rolls around, it’s no surprise that Steph winds up in third. As Prue says, her soufflés are closer to sauce. Alice is in second, having struggled with her bake as well, while David is the clear leader, his soufflés and crackers more or less turning out well. Given his shaky signature, at least compared to the other finalists, David needed a strong technical, and now, as has happened so frequently in season 10, everything will come down to the showstoppers. Before the bakers can start the showstopper round, though, it’s revealed that Alice’s parents are having trouble with their flight in for the finale picnic. She’s emotional about it, and so unsurprisingly, the judges and hosts ask her about it over and over, causing her to well up each time. They make sure to update Alice when her parents manage to board their plane at least, a moment of triumph to pair with the earlier tugs to the heartstrings.

David’s “Pic-Nik” showstopper: saffron, orange, and apricot bread “peaches”, lemon pound cake “cheese”, and fig roll “sausage rolls
Screenshot: The Great British Baking Show
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The showstopper itself is an interesting one. The bakers must create a “deliciously deceptive feast,” a picnic basket filled with ingredients designed to look like other things. They must have cake, enriched bread, and biscuits, and they’ll need to fashion the basket itself out of nougatine. Each of David, Alice, and Steph’s concepts look promising and sound delicious; everything will come down to execution. David is cool and focused, even as he wrangles his nougatine, and Alice manages to focus and even tidies up a bit, but Steph is a mess. Her macarons give her trouble, her bread dough isn’t right—she knows this won’t be her day. This puts her in an understandably bad headspace that she isn’t able to pull out of. Of course, the camera stays right with her throughout her scattered final bake, and the episode returns to her much more than necessary. It feels almost punitive, as does the decision to show her judging last. Paul and Prue start with Alice, whose bakes are a mixed bag, then go to David, who knocks this showstopper out of the park, and then end with Steph, whose critiques are the Baking Show equivalent of a sad trombone cue.

After the showstopper judging, the result is clear: David must be the winner. He did by far the best in the technical and showstopper rounds and his signature wasn’t nearly enough of a misfire to outweigh his successes. Sandi and the judges try to make it seem more competitive, but this is one of the least suspenseful final deliberations in Bake Off history. It’s surprising, given David’s come-from-behind win, that the show didn’t do more to play up his underdog status. His arc in the final plays well, and he’s certainly deserving, but given that the producers and editors knew that this is where the season was heading, it’s puzzling that they didn’t do more to prepare it.

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This finale leaves viewers with two main emotions: Excitement for David, and heartbreak for Steph. It didn’t need to be that way. Giving Steph more space throughout the weekend and particularly before recording her post-showstopper interviews would have tempered the gut-punch of her loss. Positioning David as a viable underdog even a few episodes earlier, rather than an also-ran, would have made his victory more exhilarating. Given their choices here and throughout the season, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the producers are now more interested in milking drama from their contestants than preserving the unique and supportive tone that has made Baking Show an international sensation. The finale, and a good long break from this new flavor of Bake Off, couldn’t have come any sooner.

Stray observations

  • A big thank you to Danette Chavez and Baraka Kaseko, who helped me with the images for my coverage all season. Speaking of images...
  • I can’t end my season 10 coverage without shouting out Tom Hovey, the illustrator behind the gorgeous signature and showstopper concept art for each bake. His drawings are beautiful, every time, and only the very best bakes live up to them.
  • I may be upset with the Baking Show producers, but I don’t put any of that disappointment onto David, who did a wonderful job and absolutely earned his win. His “Pic-Nik” looks amazing, validating the whole concept as a finale showstopper in a way that neither Alice nor Steph’s baskets do.
  • Despite my misgivings with this season and the show as a whole, I’ve really enjoyed this cast of bakers. They’re absolutely delightful, and if Channel 4 does a reunion special or All Stars edition with these bakers, I’ll be back with bells on.
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