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'The Great British Baking Show' should help us escape 2020, but the new season is just bitter

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/28/2020 Kelly Lawler, USA TODAY

For a certain segment of TV viewers who love all things quaint, British and baked, there is nothing as wonderful as new episodes of reality series "The Great British Baking Show." It's especially needed in 2020, the year of unrelenting tragedy amid the COVID-19 pandemic and other disasters — returning to the darling white tent in the English countryside, where everyone is kind to each other and cakes are piled high, is a massive relief.

So it's unfortunate that the first quarantined episode of the series (streaming now on Netflix) continued the recent trend of throwing out the elements that made the show a phenomenon in the U.K. and a cult hit in the U.S., in favor of increasing Instagram-inspired absurdity. And it may be tough to make TV during the pandemic, but the judges, hosts and producers can't blame coronavirus for the problems. They're all self-inflicted. 

The new season, numbered Season 8 on Netflix and Season 11 across the pond, has two major changes: The bakers remained in a "bubble" instead of returning home between weekends of filming, and co-host Sandi Tosvig has been replaced by British comedian Matt Lucas. Keeping the bakers at the tent for as long as they survive in the competition is actually more like standard American reality series like "Top Chef" or "MasterChef." The "Baking" model meant even contestants with demanding jobs and personal lives could participate during their free time. But during the pandemic how we define free time and where we work has changed anyway. 

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Lucas was a strange choice for the hosting gig. Tosvig joined the series in 2017 with Noel Fielding, replacing the comedic duo of Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins. Fielding leans more towards the cringe and silly comedy while Tosvig provided warm, maternal energy for the bakers. Replacing her with Lucas, known for his own cringeworthy style, turns both hosts into a sideshow rather than reassuring emcees. In the first episode, his bits were more distracting than amusing. 

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But the real problem with the season premiere was the showstopper challenge, the third of three tasks the bakers are given over each episode. In recent years, particularly since the series jumped from public broadcaster BBC to for-profit Channel 4 in the U.K., the challenges have veered from simple-but-stunning classic cakes and pies to absurd "biscuit selfies," "naturally colored bread sculptures," and "landscape desserts." The challenges feel like they're designed not for British teatimes but for Instagram likes. And, unfortunately, they can go very wrong. 

This week's showstopper involved the bakers creating a cake in the shape of a bust of their favorite celebrity. Let's just be honest, this is a pretty stupid idea for a challenge. If you know anything about cake baking (and the devoted fans of this series absolutely do), you'll know that carving cakes is literally a recipe for bad cake. To retain an odd shape the cakes need to be firm and dry, which is not particularly palatable. To design a cake into a human face, excess amounts of fondant icing (a moldable and edible cake frosting that tastes awful) needed to be used. It wasn't a test of baking but of sculpting, and how many home bakers are champion sculptures of the human form? What does that have to do with baking something that tastes good?

Considering none of the bakers are professionals, the cakes just didn't look good, and most didn't taste very good, according to judges Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood. Watching the sloppy faces of what was meant to be Lupita Nyong'o or David Attenborough was more akin to watching Netflix's "Nailed It!" — a series devoted baking that's so bad it's hilarious — rather than "Baking," which usually celebrates amateur excellence. 

It was a poor start to the season, all the more disappointing, because the whole year of 2020 has been one big "bad bake," to use the show's parlance. When the world is this tough we don't need Instagram cakes, we need the simplicity of "Baking" at its best. Producing TV in quarantine, with restrictions and safety regulations and isolation, is hard, but COVID isn't the reason "Baking" is failing. The flavor of the series is off, and it might never be quite as sweet again.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The Great British Baking Show' should help us escape 2020, but the new season is just bitter

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