I'm not worried I'm going to be disappointed every time I put on an episode of "The Great British Baking Show" this year. Finally.
The latest season of the British import (Netflix, streaming Fridays) once again finds 12 new bakers in the famous white tent making pies, cakes, biscuits (aka cookies) and more for the title of Britain's Best Amateur Baker. And more importantly, those bakers are helping the series recapture the glory and charm of the baking competition before a recent decline in quality soured the taste of so many bakes.
From casting some of the best bakers and personalities in years to easing up on absurd challenges and putting the focus back on the sweet treats, "Baking Show" is getting close to being the balm it once was, and not a minute too late amid the tragedy and chaos of 2021.
The simple baking competition, which began airing on PBS in the U.S. in 2014 and moved to Netflix in 2018, quickly earned a reputation as wholesome and kind, an antidote to the hypercompetitive American reality series that focus on drama and scandal. Contestants help each other out as they vie to win a contest with no cash prize against the backdrop of a picturesque English country estate, complete with ducklings and bumblebees.
When the series moved to Netflix, which coincided with a move from public broadcaster BBC 1 to ad-supported Channel 4 in the U.K., three of the four personalities behind the series left, including judge Mary Berry and hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins. The new version of the series retained Paul Hollywood as a judge, added chef Prue Leith as his co-judge and recruited Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig as hosts. (Toksvig left after the 2019 season, replaced by British comedian Matt Lucas.)
But with all these changes, "Baking" suffered. The tent was still there, jaunty music scored the weekly episodes and there were still three challenges per episode, but the tone was subtly altered. Fielding, Toksvig and especially Lucas, a comedic actor, are poor substitutes for Perkins and Giedroyc, and their jokes felt strained and awkward. Leith has never been as good at standing up to the large and self-centered personality of Hollywood as Berry was, and Hollywood's ego has distracted attention from the bakers, who are the real core of the show.
But there are problems with many of the contestants in recent years too. Producers started casting younger, more attractive but less experienced bakers, eschewing the grandmothers and grandfathers who were fan favorites in earlier seasons. The challenges became more outlandish every year, to the point where the first "showstopper" task of the 2020 season was to create a bust of a celebrity out of cake, a task which even the judges admitted made the cakes taste worse because they had to be dense and dry to accommodate the structure.
Giving the bakers temperature-sensitive challenges in a tent lacking air conditioning on the hottest days of the year was a recurring problem that felt less like an unhappy coincidence than a deliberate attempt to up the drama with ice cream cakes melting in 100-degree heat.
As a longtime viewer and amateur baker myself, it was an "I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed" situation. So it was with real joy and delighted surprise that I began watching the 2021 season and started to feel the old "Baking" spark come back.
The primary fix this year has been a massive improvement in casting. The 12 contestants are more diverse in background and age than in recent seasons. Familiar character types have returned, including the kind grandmother and the baking genius who doesn't know how talented he really is. The producers even included a vegan baker in the mix, a woman who put her cakes without eggs or butter up against those of her peers without missing a beat.
The charming contestants are finally getting more camera time than the hosts' antics (although there are still a few insufferable sketches). It's easier to ignore Lucas making a bad joke when the contestant he's chatting with makes a better one. The bakers are appealing, kind and often hilarious, from Italian immigrant Giuseppe, who looks like Albert Einstein, to Lizzie, with fiery orange hair and a devil-may-care attitude when it comes to following directions. This year's front-runner, German immigrant Jürgen, helped his fellow bakers prepare for a German-themed week of challenges and has the eyebrows and attitude of Paddington Bear.
When the bakers shine, it doesn't really matter that Lucas' humor doesn't, or that the challenge is the too-crazy-for-Instagram prompt of turning biscuits into a childhood toy. The biggest appeal of the show, beyond seeing beautiful cakes and pies, has always been the way the contestants help each other. It offers a glimpse into a kinder, brighter world where lifting each other up is more important than winning, where the worst thing that can happen is bread dough not rising and where happy tears flow freely.
"Baking" may never again exactly nail the tone that it started with. But it certainly feels much closer to that ideal this year than in the past three seasons. And it deserves a star baker award for the effort.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The Great British Baking Show' is starting to feel like itself again