For a season of reality television I’ve enjoyed as much as any debut reality season in quite some time, The American Baking Competition sure shit the bed with its finale. For one thing, the finale arrived highly abruptly. Somewhere in the last episode, all of the contestants—five left—started talking about how the finale was coming, and boy, were they getting nervous, and then judges Paul Hollywood and Marcella Valladolid cut two contestants—both among my three favorites—somewhat unceremoniously, as if the finale had sneaked up on them as well. It was a really odd structural choice for a season that had, at the very least, been pretty well designed up until that point for maximum reality TV fun. It left a sour taste in my mouth heading into the finale, which ended up being really, really anticlimactic.
In a way, it’s my own fault for expecting too much out of the show. One of the things that got me into it was specifically its lack of drama. The contestants all seemed to genuinely like each other, each episode had three baking challenges in it (leaving little time for excess drama), and the judges were there less to tear down the contestants’ skills than to give good baking tips. I doubt it would have been as successful at any other time of the year, but in the summer, it was the perfect light confection, the kind of low-stakes reality series that rarely comes along and thrusts the focus all on the food. The shots of the finished products were all amazing, and they gave a firm sense of just why the baked goods didn’t work in terms of presentation, something many other food reality shows struggle with. Or, put another way, switching over from the lightly plucked strings, airy production design, and brightly lit cinematography of this show to the opening of MasterChef, which tries to make a cooking competition feel like the “Ride Of The Valkyries” sequence in Apocalypse Now, was always a treat in jarring juxtaposition.
That, of course, proved the show’s doom. In a rare scheduling misstep for the normally airtight CBS, the network placed this brief season directly in competition with the more successful, more established MasterChef, then didn’t really bother to promote it. It’s entirely possible CBS was trying to bury Baking for some reason, perhaps because it thought the lighter tone wouldn’t work well in the heavier reality genre, but that lack of self-importance was what made the show at once so fun to watch and so completely forgettable. (Seeing some of the contestants who had been eliminated earlier—including people who’d stuck around for a relatively long time—at the end of tonight’s episode reminded me how little I knew about any of them.) Many food shows force the issue by hyping up the drama; American Baking Competition embraced its lack of substantiality.
So that made the show fun to watch, but it also meant that the stakes in the last two episodes felt lower than low. I had basically forgotten that the contestants were competing for $250,000 and a cookbook deal (a cookbook deal where one wonders if it will actually happen, given this show’s anemic ratings—shades of the disastrous America’s Next Great Restaurant), and the lack of bitter rivalries among the contestants who were left made for a pretty boring hour of TV. It also made for what started to feel like the weirdest winners’ edit in history, when Darlene, who had been one of the best bakers throughout but had had so little attention paid to her that it felt like she would be the evening’s first casualty, suddenly started getting all of that attention lavished on her. The series was smart to spread out its character bios across the seven episodes, but by placing all of Darlene’s material—about her divorce and the recent death of her father—in the finale, it created what felt like an especially clumsy winner’s edit.
Instead, Darlene fell apart in the final showstopper challenge, after narrowly winning the signature bake and placing an easy first in the technical bake, and the ultimate title went to Brian, whose obnoxious certainty in himself was the closest thing the series had to a negative personality. The series turned to him in the moments when other reality series would generate conflict, just to see if he would say something mean. Instead, he’d say something incredibly vague like, “It’s time for a man to be the master baker!” To be fair, he was part of one of my favorite awkward moments in recent reality TV memory, when he outright asked Paul and Marcella to be the master baker, but I would genuinely have not predicted from that that he would rise from the middle of the pack to the top of the heap like he did.
By focusing on the food instead of the contestants, The American Baking Competition may have inadvertently doomed itself to this fate, too. Because we didn’t really know any of these people beyond the broadest of strokes, it made it hard to get too worked up about any of them going. (I liked James so much because he had a beard, for God’s sake.) Perhaps that was an offshoot of the series’ generally weak casting: Throughout, it was fairly obvious that the final three would come from Darlene, Francine, Brian, and Elaine (who was eliminated last week), which removed any real sense of drama. This cropped up again in the finale, when Francine essentially eliminated herself in the signature bake and fell apart afterward and when Darlene completely flopped on the final challenge, leading to a win for the slow and steady Brian.
I probably won’t be too upset if this show is canceled, and I don’t see why CBS would renew it, even though it appears to be incredibly cheap to produce, featuring exactly one set, which is a tent. But I liked its structure, the way that having three bakes per episode didn’t allow for too much drama to percolate and the way that the technical bake, especially, provided for some fun head-to-head competitions that never turned too nasty. There’s enough good in American Baking Competition that could be made great with the usual between-seasons tweaking and prodding, and on a night when it’s not airing up against a very similar, very popular cooking reality show, it might actually have just enough of a different tone to break through. Instead, I’ll just take the one season we got and let it evaporate from the memory, like a particularly tasty meringue that melts away as soon as it’s in the mouth. What made this show so fun at first was its lack of heft; what made it ultimately fall apart in the end was that same quality.
Season grade: B-
- Weird reality show dialogue: “The vacuum is missing you.” Brian’s wife said this to him on the occasion of him winning $250,000 and a cookbook deal. Now, it had been previously established that Brian was a neat freak, but that was many episodes ago, so it technically had an explanation, but I prefer to just think that Brian’s wife is really pissed he went on a reality show and stopped doing chores around the house and this is the most passive-aggressive “Congratulations/I’ll be so glad to have you home again” dialogue ever.
- Jeff Foxworthy was the thing that held me back from truly embracing this show. He wasn’t a bad host when he stuck to his actual hosting duties—he’s pretty good in environments like this, actually—but he was too frequently hammy and inserted himself into the proceedings far too often for my tastes, especially when one considers that the sole joke he had to play was, “I can’t wait to eat that food!” which grew old after a while.
- My favorite episode was probably that one where Effie—a contestant I really liked—had a complete meltdown and served the judges both raw custard and a raw soufflé. Her weird performance coupled with the surprisingly intense soufflé challenge made for a pretty solid little hour of reality TV. If this show is unexpectedly renewed, I hope the producers take a look at what made that episode work.