Contestants and judges of The Great British Baking Show season five
Photo: Love Productions (PBS)

America is a stressful, chaotic cyclone of despair and trauma right now. Thankfully, for those in need of some respite to recover and recharge (before getting back out there), The Great British Baking Show is back in all its Mel-and-Sue, picturesque-British-countryside, biggest-problem-today-is-a-bagel glory. This new season may have originally aired in the U.K. back in 2012, but if anything, that’s a feature rather than a bug. It lets fans time travel for a few hours back to a simpler time, a time before, among other things, the show’s move off of the BBC and split from original hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins and original judge Mary Berry. If you missed series three of The Great British Bake Off (the show’s U.K. title), or if that season’s challenges, triumphs, and defeats have grown hazy over the past six years, this will be new to you, and either way, there’s plenty of fun awaiting viewers and bakers alike in those lovely Baking Show tents.

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Season five begins, as each season does, with “Cakes,” and the premiere dives right in with the first signature challenge: The bakers must each make an upside-down cake, any upside-down cake, that shows off their signature flavors and baking style. The episode wastes no time getting down to business—almost distractingly so. There’s no introductory “Meet The Bakers” segment or even much acknowledgement from Mel and Sue that it’s a new season, and as such, the audience may need a refresher. Instead, the premiere combines the contestant introductions with the first day’s challenges. Unfortunately, this leaves little time for a discussion of their bakes or of upside-down cake itself. The history and culture segments that accompanied the first seasons of The Great British Bake Off are gone, making for a more streamlined presentation, but one with less personality.

With the focus on introducing the bakers, rather than their bakes, the signature challenge goes pretty quickly. There’s a buzzing energy to the tent, but aside from Stuart’s forgotten tomato jam, all seems to be going well until the cakes go in the ovens. Perhaps the most entertaining part of any episode of The Great British Baking Show is the crazy levels of tension wrung out of the bakers pacing, staring daggers through their oven doors, and willing their bakes to rise until finally the bakers are ready to take their cakes out. Due to the upside-down cake challenge, there’s a second stressful sequence, as each baker delicately but deliberately flips their cake over to reveal the fruit beneath the sponge. This can go horribly awry (speaking from personal experience), but fortunately, everyone’s prepped their pans and given their bakes enough time in the oven, so there are no disasters.

Either due to the comparative simplicity of the challenge (aside from timing the bake) or the overall level of the contestants, the first judging session of the season is pretty low-key. Mary dives right in with her catchphrases, with Cathryn earning the first “scrummy” of the season, and most of the bakers do well. Ryan’s polenta cake is dry, but still flavorful, so it’s Stuart who has the worst day of the lot, earning a quintessentially GBBS critique from Paul Hollywood, “I think it looks… um… I think it could be better.” Stuart knows it’s a mess, he knows he failed to achieve the cake he set out to make, and he knows why, so rather than rub his failure in his face, the judges assess whatever they can find that did work, compassionately critique the rest, and move on. It’s lovely.

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Next up is the first technical challenge, a Paul rum baba recipe. Each baker is surprised with a pared-down recipe (instructions include “Bake until done”) and must execute the same recipe, guided by their instinct and experience, with their bakes judged blind. Brendan immediately pulls ahead in audiences’ hearts, if not the competition, by shimming with Mel and John, Natasha, and Peter each get too creative for their own good. (Don’t try to one-up Paul Hollywood, Peter. The technical is not the time!) When Paul and Mary return to the tent to judge their bakes, the bakers are terrified. It’s a mixed bag. Paul almost spits out John’s accidentally-salt-crusted baba and confirms Brendan’s fears for his bake, but at the end of the judging, Paul has to stop himself from saying, “You’ve all done a good job” because, honestly, most of them have. Sarah-Jane takes first place in the technical, and her reaction is The Great British Baking Show in a nutshell: “I know it’s only four little cakes, but it’s, like, monumental to me. It’s amazing.”

Day two brings the showstopper challenge, which asks the bakers to prioritize presentation as well as flavor and texture. For their first showstopper, the bakers must each bake a hidden design cake, one that when sliced into will reveal a design baked into the cake or crafted with pieces of differently colored sponges. Peter and Stuart are both set to make the Union Jack (the flag of the U.K.), Ryan has a flavored flower bed in mind, and Victoria is not only baking a blackbird and a nose into her cake, but decorating and shaping it into a pie, inspired by the nursery rhyme “Sing A Song Of Sixpence.” While there’s decidedly more tension in the air on day two, with those who struggled on day one feeling the pressure, on the whole, the bakers all turn in beautiful cakes. Victoria is the clear winner for Star Baker, as her pie cake is creative, playful, and very well executed, and unfortunately, Natasha’s textural problems in her signature bake, along with her poor technical, are enough to send her home. Her goodbye is teary and emotional, and makes one wish the series would hold an all first-eliminateds reunion season, giving those who never quite found their footing a second crack at the tent. For now, however, as this is premiere week, it’s time to head straight to…

Bread week!

“Bread” is a highlight each season, if only for the glee Paul takes in low-level torturing the bakers with pointed questions and refusing them any reassurance in his steely, psych-out reactions. For season five, the signature challenge tasks the bakers with making 12 flatbreads, six with yeast and six without, with any flavors they’d like. There’s a lot more variety in the bakers’ flatbread flavors than in their upside-down cakes and this helps viewers follow their early favorites more easily. It also helps that the introductions are out of the way. Each of the bakers gets interviewed about their signature bake and a couple even manage fun, memorable moments with Mel and Sue. Brendan follows up his episode one shimmy by being a total sport with Mel’s, “Show me your hot rocks” silliness and Cathryn is far more calm than Mel when Mel accidentally squishes her arm down on one of Cathryn’s covered flatbreads.

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Season five is actually the earliest of the Great British Bake Off seasons to be aired on PBS, so elements of the show’s banter and flow that by U.K. series four and five (U.S. seasons one and three) had been well established are still works in progress here. Mel and Sue are wonderful hosts, but their trademark playful, often suggestive asides and puns have been noticeably absent to this point. The terrible food puns do arrive, at long last, toward the end of the signature bake, with Sue’s “Paul won’t feel any pita for you” and Mel’s, “Ugh, I’m gonna tell your naan about you.” The puns signal the end of the signature bake and while the cakes from episode one looked pretty, it’s the flatbreads that make this viewer most want to reach into the TV for a sample.

The second technical challenge of the season is a doozy, for these bakers at least, and one that’s an absolute hoot to watch. The bakers need to make a plaited (or braided) loaf with eight strands. There’s no sense the bakers are struggling with the recipe, so the challenge comes down to their ability to follow the pattern (if they can even read it) and plait their loaf correctly. John and James seem to have a handle on this, but most everyone else is out of their depth and there’s a strong sense of camaraderie in the tent. The bakers are all pretty sure they’re mangling their bread octopi and because they’re all in this together, the stress and weight is lifted. Many viewers will have at least some experience with braiding, if only through braiding their hair or watching friends and siblings do the same (alas, not Sarah-Jane), but few will have experience with eight-part braids. It’s the closest viewers will likely get to being able to play along at home in real-time, miming the action and trying to follow along as the bakers read out the pattern. In the end, as in the first technical bake, most of the bakers have a presentable and tasty, if not beautiful, loaf and we’ve all learned a bit about how to plait bread, at least in theory.

After judging, it’s time for the showstopper challenge, and for bread week, the bakers must make 24 bagels, 12 savory and 12 sweet. First of all, bagels are delicious and very specific, so this is a terrific challenge. However, it’s much more of a signature challenge than a showstopper. The bakers don’t need to build a bagel ring or bagel tree, just present bagels, and it’s curious that the producers and judges didn’t come up with a more visual twist to this challenge. In fact, the bagel challenge could’ve been reworked as a technical challenge and the bakers given advance warning to prepare a plaited loaf with their own design for the showstopper, and that would’ve fit more neatly into what each challenge is supposed to test. That being said, many of the bakers struggle with their bagels and it winds up being an excellent challenge to separate the group into tiers. It’s telling that come judging time, there’s very little discussion of the signature challenge. The bagels are the make-or-break challenge for this episode, and this time, it’s John (Star Baker this episode) and James who set themselves apart, and Peter who is sent home.

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With two episodes under its belt, season five is already shaping up to be an entertaining and educational season of The Great British Baking Show. There’s no clear frontrunner yet, but several in contention, and the season is six-for-six for interesting and delicious-looking challenges. Mel and Sue may be a little light on the winning silliness and innuendo to this point, but they’re charming as ever and already serving as equal parts cheerleaders and stabilizing forces for the bakers, and Mary and Paul both seem energized and engaged throughout. The Great British Baking Show may not feel like the real world, with a handful of kind, enthusiastic strangers isolated in a clean white tent in the middle of a beautiful green meadow, baking their hearts out, but it’s exactly the kind of TV a lot of people can benefit from right now. It’s going to be a blast following the season together.

Stray observations

  • Hello everyone, and welcome to The A.V. Club’s new weekly coverage of The Great British Baking Show! I’m a big fan of the series, so I’m stoked to be writing about the show week-to-week and I look forward to reading everyone’s baking stories in the comments.
  • A note on spoilers: This season aired in the U.K. in 2012, so it’s easy to find out online what each of the challenges are and when contestants were eliminated. Please avoid hints or outright spoilers of what’s to come in the comments section, for those who are following along for the first time.
  • I have no experience baking any of the bread challenges, but I do have very fond memories of a hidden design cake my mom baked 17 years ago for a neighbor’s first birthday party. She made a chocolate and vanilla checkerboard cake, designed to look like blocks, with small blocks of cake on top of the main cake frosted and spelling out “Happy Birthday.” She also made a smash cake for the neighbor, and we still have a picture of him covered in frosting and looking absolutely delighted.
  • Pineapple upside-down cake is delicious and it’s been way too long since I had some. Note to self: rectify this.
  • How perfectly Paul Hollywood is this feedback to James: “… … Yeah, well done.” No Paul Hollywood Handshakes yet, but after the sourdough concession and his earlier, “I’m quite impressed with that one. It’s not bad at all,” James is up by two for hard-earned, grudging compliments.
  • A few interjections I may or may not have yelled at my screen: “Stuart, tomatoes? You could use anything, and you pick tomatoes?”; “James, what are you doing? Yeah, you shoulda practiced.”; “Ryan, come on- this is why you make extra!”
  • I’m a massive Doctor Who fan, so yes, I’m already rooting for Sarah-Jane, Victoria (for her Who reference), and Cathryn, just for saying, “Oh, my giddy aunt!”. I’m also massively rooting for Brendan, because he’s a cellist and as a violinist, I have to stick with a fellow string player. I’m sure I’ll have more substantive rooting interests later on, but for now, I’m good with these.

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