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The recipe for a better 'Bake-Off'? Fun format, good casting, and less host shtick

<em>The Great British Baking Show</em> has had a long and bumpy ride, but it's finally righted the ship by focusing on the fundamentals.
Mark Bourdillon
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Love Productions/Channel 4
The Great British Baking Show has had a long and bumpy ride, but it's finally righted the ship by focusing on the fundamentals.

I think last season of The Great British Baking Show was the first one I didn't gobble up (no pun intended) the minute the episodes dropped. I had grown weary of the hosting team of Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas, frustrated with overly complicated bakes that were almost impossible to execute well, and dismayed at repeated and increasingly obnoxious takes on "ethnic" food weeks that didn't even seem to represent good-faith efforts to get things right.

What a relief to be looking forward to episodes arriving on Netflix on Friday mornings again.

The show has had a long and bumpy ride; I am not alone in believing that the best and purest version will always be the first one, the public television one, with Mary Berry alongside Paul Hollywood, and with Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins hosting. But the era that followed, with Prue Leith taking Mary's place and Noel Fielding hosting with Sandi Toksvig, had its charms, too. Then Sandi left, and she was replaced by Matt Lucas, who was much too close to being another Noel, a look-at-me presence who seemed less interested in the contestants than in doing bits and being the center of attention. You can do bits on this show — that's why they hire comedians! — but you have to care about the contestants first. Things got wonky.

Judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith (top) and presenters Alison Hammond and Noel Fielding.
Mark Bourdillon / Love Productions/Channel 4
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Love Productions/Channel 4
Judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith (top) and presenters Alison Hammond and Noel Fielding.

Lucas is gone now, replaced by Alison Hammond, a boisterous but generous companion to Fielding who has helped the show restore its balance. She's silly but not distracting. She and Noel don't interrupt the flow to do shtick the way he did with Lucas. Production has knocked off the convoluted challenges and gone back to ones the bakers can do well. This week's showstopper, for instance, is a cake inside any sort of chocolate box you want to make. Is making a chocolate box fancy? Sure! Is it impossible, or does it result in nothing but a series of failures? No. And, yes, they've made the wise decision to stop the "national weeks" that were increasingly embarrassing for everyone involved.

There are two ways a show, particularly a competition show, can try to assure itself a long life. One is to go the Survivor route of becoming ever more complicated, introducing new twists and turns and producer interventions that keep anybody from figuring out a reliable strategy, lest the outcome become predictable. It's hard to argue with a show that's on its 45th season when it comes to sticking around, but the game itself is much less smart and skilled than it once was, and as it eats its own tail by casting Survivor superfans who proceed to spend their time on the show talking about how much they love the show, it's less and less compelling.

The other way is to do what Bake-Off (yes, yes, in the U.S. we technically call it The Great British Baking Show, but it's Bake-Off in our hearts) is currently doing. You trust your format, you concentrate on good casting, you lean on your fundamentals — in short, you calm the thing down. Bake-Off has always been soothing; that's its nature. It doesn't need to be brand-new every time, with things you've never seen before. One technical challenge this season was custard creams, perhaps unfamiliar to many Americans but a basic and very popular sandwich cookie in the UK. It looks a lot like a golden Oreo, though it's rectangular and I'm pretty sure the texture is different. Getting it right comes down to details and technique. It's not flashy; fussing over the execution is for nerds, in the best way.

There's a lesson here for other shows: If your format is a good idea, you don't have to keep complicating it. The human beings and the happenings will keep it fresh. And when you do that, the hosts can stay out of the way, because they're not the main event. They never were.

This piece also appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.

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Linda Holmes
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.