‘Great British Baking Show’ 2020: We break down the season finale, snubs and surprises
The season finale — and also the finals — of the latest season of “The Great British Baking Show” made it to America on Friday, with last standing bakers Dave Friday (30, security guard), Laura Adlington (31, digital manager) and Peter Sawkins (20, student and youngest finalist ever) going spatula to spatula for the prized cake stand trophy. L.A. Times television writers and avid bake-off watchers Meredith Blake and Robert Lloyd discuss the season and its conclusion.
CAUTION: Spoilers at the end!
Meredith Blake: Well, Robert, we’ve reached the end of another season of “The Great British Baking Show.” Whether expectations in this grim year were simply too high or the show is genuinely in a rut after more than a decade on the air, I think I’ve heard more complaints about this season than I have in all previous seasons combined.
I am not sure that things are as dire as some critics have claimed. I still happily watch each episode within a day or two of release, and darn if that little montage at the end of the finale didn’t make me cry. But I do think “Bake Off” could use a tuneup. The charm of this series has always been how different it feels compared with most competition reality shows. There are no cash prizes, no conspicuous product placements and — for most of its run, anyway — no obvious manipulations by producers looking to stoke artificial drama.
This season, however, there were numerous challenges that felt almost sadistic — as if they had been designed to humiliate and stress out the bakers as much as test their skills in the kitchen. Making an ice cream cake in 95-degree heat? Sculpting a realistic 3D celebrity bust out of fondant and vanilla sponge? Long-running shows have to up the ante, I suppose, but I think “Bake Off” has taken it too far. And I am not sure I can ever forgive the show for introducing me to the horror that is “pond pudding.” What do you think, Robert?
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Robert Lloyd: Sussex pond pudding does seem like a euphemism for something quite disgusting, though I don’t mean to dispute what (for all I know) might be its lemony goodness. And I quite enjoyed the portrait cakes, from a naive art standpoint. (Art skills have always been a feature of the show, which is of course an entirely visual and descriptive experience — we have to trust the judges about how they taste, and they don’t always agree.) And I don’t suppose the hottest year on record went into the planning — or maybe it did?
You’re right that there’s an added element of drama (you should excuse the expression) baked in. There’s always been a bit of that, but this year seems long on near-disastrous challenges (there was at least one technical that nobody got right) and things that take you away from what has always made the show paradoxically exciting to me: its meditative nature. The waiting, the watching. The quiet self-deprecation. What happened in the tent in earlier seasons felt more of a piece with what went on outside, where the birds chirped, and the ducklings waddled and the sheep looked at the camera as if to say, “What?”
The biggest distraction to me this year, which I say with some sadness since I am a fan of their work elsewhere, is the comedy — Noel Fielding and new chum Matt Lucas are very much overused, to my taste. In many ways Lucas is a real “get,” as big a figure in British comedy and culture as you can find, and Fielding has seemed happy to have him as a playmate. But there was too much of them hanging over the bakers, jabbering away, not being helpful and sometimes, one felt, being an actual hindrance. And an awful lot of sexual innuendo, which I know is a British thing — but really, a lot. Someone in charge obviously would disagree, just as someone in charge of “MasterChef Junior,” the Only Other Cooking Competition That Matters, thinks that what its audience wants is more goop poured over the judges. (Anyone still pining for Mel and Sue, check out their “Hitmen,” on Peacock.)
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Coming into the finals, I was not surprised to see Laura, even though she has been in trouble now and again, or Peter, who was clearly a star early on. I was sad to see Hermine go; she’s an interesting baker, and a great personality, but she had a terrible week the week it was supposed to be her week. (Patisserie week.) Dave struck me as a dark horse, but I wonder, too, if that impression might not be a product of the storytelling rather than his work; his narrative arc seems to be “most improved,” which doesn’t necessarily equal brilliance. Yet it would be instructive to go over his bakes throughout the season; they might be more interesting than I remember.
Is there anyone you were sorry to lose?
Blake: I was very sad about Hermine, who was so charming and talented and made a jelly cake so gorgeous-looking it nearly made me want to eat a jelly cake. And I was even sadder that the retaliatory Twitter trolls apparently came for Laura, because she also seems lovely and I fully relate to her chaotic style in the kitchen. But I was saddest to see Lottie go. She was wonderfully quick-witted and inventive and is such a natural in front of the camera that I’d be surprised if she didn’t end up somewhere else on TV very soon.
She got the boot after an ice cream cake that was an unmitigated disaster, but her departure and Hermine’s probably rank as the biggest upsets this season. I sometimes question the wisdom of the judges, who insist that they can only make their decision based on that week’s bakes. In a contest that purports to find Britain’s greatest amateur baker, does that really make sense? Shouldn’t cumulative performance count for something? (If it did, Hermine certainly would have been in the final.)
Something positive I will say about this season is that the casting, as always, is terrific, even if I’m shocked at how bad everyone was at making brownies. We had such a delightful mix of personalities, ages, accents and baking styles, from Rowan and his eccentric waistcoats to young Peter and his gluten-free concoctions. As long as producers get that right, the show can only go so wrong.
Which reminds me: Peter noted that “Bake Off” has been on more than half his lifetime — a very rude thing for him to say, obviously — but I wonder if the fact that the show has become a kind of cultural institution has impacted the competition itself. If you’ve got a whole generation of bakers who grew up watching people whip up Italian meringue on the telly and know all the potential pitfalls, then how do producers keep things fresh and challenging without resorting to gimmicks? I’m not sure!
Did any moments from this season — or the finale — stand out to you, in a good way?
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Lloyd: I agree about the casting — as a somewhat, cough, older person, I was happy to see Linda stay in so long. (Not to mention the way judge Prue Leith models 80.) As to the season, the details always blur into a welter of emotions and affections. (I liked Lottie, too, and Mak and Sura.) One nice thing about the later shows is that with fewer contestants you get more time with each baker, and this year’s finale again provided that kind of intimacy and, one might say, continuity of character: Peter, a happy camper (describing his process, he already sounds like he’s hosting his own cooking show). Laura, messy yet secure in what she knows. Dave, serious and determined, making his final entry out of things he’d baked poorly before. As usual, I lived for the moments when a contestant is told something tastes “gorgeous.” Ultimately I only hope for good reviews — I would happily watch a “Great British Baking Show” in which no one was ever eliminated and every episode lasted 12 hours. I had no quarrel with the judges’ decision; I would have put money on it weeks ago.
And, yes, that end montage got me, too.
Blake: Dave and his little newborn — just adorable! I am also pleased with the outcome even if it didn’t come as a surprise. Peter is not only the youngest winner in “Bake Off” history, but also, lest we forget, the first Scottish winner. Let’s raise a glass of whisky to that! (I think I have some that’s older than him.)
Lloyd: Slàinte mhath! (I looked that up.)
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