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It’s that time of year again. The tents are up, the contestants are furiously practicing, and hosts Noel and Sandi are up to their usual hijinks. The Great British Bake Off is back for its tenth series (dubbed The Great British Baking Show Collection 7 on Netflix), and the new season brings a new twist. This time, they’re starting with a baker’s dozen (13) contestants, instead of the usual 12, and on any given week, two bakers may be sent home. It’s an unnecessary and somewhat labored bid to inject extra drama into a show specifically designed to avoid typical, tiresome reality competition trappings. Many feared a loss of the show’s identity when it moved from the BBC to Channel 4—and swapped out Mary Berry, Mel, and Sue for Prue Leith, Noel, and Sandi—and those fears have proved mostly unfounded thus far. However, this change in the rules marks a small, but significant shift in the show’s tone. Instead of reluctantly sending one competitor home each episode, Paul and Prue will decide each installment whether to punish a second baker for failing to live up to their standard and send them home as well. Just how friendly will the episode-ending group hug be the week the judges eliminate a second contestant, purely at their whim? It remains to be seen how this new twist will play out, but with its introduction, The Great British Baking Show gets a little less friendly, and a little more competitive.

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Thankfully, the effects of this new rule aren’t felt in the season premiere, “Cake Week.” After a colorful and delightfully silly introduction, which casts the hosts and judges as the famous foursome from The Wizard of Oz, everyone heads to the tents and dives in with the first signature bake of the season. The bakers will need to present a fruitcake of any size or shape, but decorated and featuring a “significant amount” of dried fruit. There’s a much grander tradition of fruitcake in the U.K. than in the States and seeing the range of flavors and approaches the bakers take is interesting. A number of the bakers are using family recipes, which wind up netting positive reviews from the judges. There’s plenty of variety in the cakes, and while a few bakers run into trouble, on the whole this is a fairly gentle start to the proceedings.

Kicking off the season with a rather straightforward bake allows plenty of time for the producers and editors to introduce the contestants. There isn’t much drama in the tent, so the episode can cut away pretty easily to show each of the 13 bakers’ home lives. This may result in the beginning of the episode feeling overstuffed and a bit slow on its feet, but it achieves the desired goal. By the time the signature bakes are out and ready for judging, several of the contestants have made an impression and they’re all surprisingly easy to track and keep clear in one’s mind. There’s Priya the aspiring novelist, Jamie the gap-year twin, Henry the university student, Amelia the designer, Phil the lorry (truck) driver with the fabulous ears, Helena the Halloween lover, Michelle the Welsh family woman and Noel lookalike, Steph who works with classic cars, Rosie the vet, David the fitness fiend, Alice the geography teacher, Michael the injury-prone, and Dan the support worker. A number of them are visibly anxious—poor Henry drops his painstakingly piped house decoration!—but they seem to be holding up alright so far.

After the first round of judging, most of the bakers are off to a solid or even better start. The standout, unfortunately, is Dan, who gets in his head about “significant” fruit and changes his recipe on the day. That throws off his bake time and he winds up with a raw center. Changing the recipe on the day: Never a good idea (unless it works). Up next is the technical, and Prue has chosen a fairly straightforward first challenge. The contestants must make six identical angel cake slices. Each slice must have three layers of differently flavored genoise sponge (lemon, raspberry, and vanilla), with Italian meringue buttercream frosting between the layers and a feathered fondant icing on top. Paul and Prue talk a big game about how challenging this technical is, but fans of the show know being able to execute a genoise sponge and Italian meringue buttercream are essential skills for any successful GBBS baker.

That doesn’t mean they don’t come with their fair share of pitfalls. Genoise sponges lose volume and wind up like rubber easily if over-worked and Italian meringue buttercream can be tricky, particularly in this setting. Previous technicals have had instructions like, “Make a genoise” and “top with Italian meringue buttercream” with no recipe listed whatsoever, but those tend to come later in the season, after the less experienced bakers have been eliminated. This is week one. The tent is full of nervous energy and very few of the bakers are confident. That may hint at a lower level overall for the season, at least where cakes are concerned, but more likely, the early competition stress is getting to the bakers. Hopefully after a few more episodes, the mood will settle and the contestants won’t be as thrown. In the end, a handful of the bakers turn in solid angel cake slices—Henry, Rosie, Steph, and Amelia—a bunch more struggle, and a few bomb. After the confidence-inspiring signature bake, the first day ends on a down note as the contestants head off to rest before the next day’s showstopper challenge.

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The final bake is another smart choice. For their showstopper, the bakers must create the birthday cake they dreamt of having as a child. There are no flavor, shape, or size requirements, and this gives plenty of leeway for the more inventive competitors to distinguish themselves. Setting a child’s birthday cake as the brief demands color, creativity, and fun. Making it the cake they would have wanted as a child adds specificity and a personal touch that is incredibly helpful in the first episode. Viewers still struggling to distinguish the bakers in their minds should have an easier time after this challenge. Jamie and Henry may be the two young guys (both are 20), but you wouldn’t confuse Jamie’s schnauzer and Henry’s magical forest. Dan and Michael may both have been inspired by pirates, but Michael’s treasure chest is completely different from Dan’s pirate island, with smoking waterfall. The resulting bakes are lovely, and while a few struggle with their flavors, the designs are solid across the board.

In the end, Dan’s creative approach to his showstopper wasn’t enough to overcome his missing passion fruit curd, middle placement in the technical, and raw signature bake, and he’s the first to leave the tent. Jamie wasn’t far behind, but his strong signature made up for his abysmal technical and overly sweet showstopper. On a happier note, Michelle is awarded the first Star Baker, nailing her fairy cake. After the first episode, there are a handful of contenders and a good number who could easily gain momentum and join them at the top. The grind of weekly competition will wear differently on the bakers, some gaining confidence and momentum and others struggling to keep up as the weeks roll on, and eventually, the specter of the double elimination will loom large and cast a pall on the proceedings. For now, however, fans seem poised for another entertaining, diverting season of Bake Off fun.

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Stray observations

  • Welcome back to another season of The Great British Baking Show coverage here at The A.V. Club! I’m excited to be back in the tents and looking forward to reading everyone’s thoughts in the comments.
  • It’s a bit early for favorites, but in general, I’m enjoying this cast. The flavor choices this episode didn’t bowl me over, but I’m hoping the bakers will up their game once they get their first-week jitters out of the way. That being said, the group as a whole needs to step up their genoise game. It’s going to get much, much harder.
  • Over the years, I’ve soured more and more on Paul Hollywood. He’s clearly positioned as the main judge, with Prue there for color commentary, and even one episode in, Prue’s sidelining is frustrating. The show is better when it treats its judges as equal partners.
  • Did anyone else notice that Alice brought angel cake slices in for her students in her B-roll? I’m assuming those were filmed after the fact, because if not, that’s some Chetna-level technical luck.
  • Jamie had a tough weekend, but I applaud him sticking with his bakes, even when he had to start over. And don’t worry, Jamie, this is GBBS. You’ll be crying on camera in no time.

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