The most recent season of The Great British Baking Show was not the series' best effort: From ridiculous challenges that seemed more focused on shaming the contestants than celebrating their bakes to awkward host interactions and truly incomprehensible judging decisions, the tent has been a mess this year and there is certainly lots to complain about. But the show's never going to get back to its best form until it deals with the elephant in the room: Judge Paul Hollywood.
Trust me when I say that I know I'm going to get hate mail for even typing that sentence. I understand that there are many fans who genuinely do love Paul for himself, and yet still more who cling to his presence as the last remnant of the original BBC version of the Baking Show. And on a nostalgia level, that's easy to understand. But this is a different version of the show now, and not always in a good way.
Truth be told, the entire judging slate should probably be tossed in the bin and rebuilt from scratch. As much as I love Matt Lucas in other projects, he's got no business being on this program and contributes virtually nothing. (Remember his physically painful Boris Johnson impersonation? Or when they made him wear a paper mache mango on his head? Please make it stop.) His painful comedy schtick with co-host Noel Fielding is simply not funny at all, and as a result of Lucas' addition to the cast, the series now has a very weird, male-heavy energy that it clearly doesn't how to harness in a creatively satisfying way.
Truthfully, Noel does deserve some credit for being the only Baking Show authority who consistently attempts to be kind to the folks on the show and who occasionally pushes back against Paul's decrees about various contestants' performances during the judges' discussions toward the end of each episode. Co-judge Prue Leith is more memorable for her array of colorful eyewear choices than she is for any insights she might provide on the bakes themselves. This season she's either praised a contestant's delicious flavors or derided entries as dry, and that's pretty much been the entirety of her contribution to proceedings. (Which is at least something of a step up from last season when she was just straight up mean.)
That leaves Paul at the center of everything, and I have to say it: The Baking Show is not better for it. Though no one on-air ever says so, it's apparent that there's no way you'll find any sort of success if Paul doesn't like you, and if he does like you, you're probably going to stay a couple of weeks past the point at which you should have exited the competition. He's clearly aware of the fact that he's the primary one making the decisions about who stays and goes - there's no sense of balance, partnership, or good-natured back and forth as there was with previous judge Mary Berry or even former host Sandi Toksvig, and it makes things very obnoxious. (Perhaps it's also something to do with the fact that Prue isn't as unfailingly pleasant as Mary was, which took a lot of the edge off of the fact that Paul seems physically incapable of doing the same.)
From the general group obsession with Hollywood handshakes to Paul being allowed the final word on virtually every bake and contestant, it's clear that this is the Hollywood world and we're all just stuck in it. Yes, in theory, Prue is supposed to be Paul's equal, but she isn't - and no one involved with the show even tries to pretend otherwise. It's Paul that's allowed to peacock around the tent and grant special approval to those bakers he deems worthy. (I truly hate the handshake. I said it and I'm not sorry).
The Baking Show has become almost entirely deferential to Paul's opinion - the only person who's contradicted him in the slightest at all this season is Noel, for goodness sake - and weirdly reverent toward him in a way that...well, it isn't at all fun to watch.
True, this most recent season has had more problems than just Paul. There are the increasingly ridiculous challenges that seem set up for the bakers to fail. See also: The first trio of showstoppers, virtually every technical challenge (The cornucopia thing! What!), and the utter refusal of anyone in charge to even try to accommodate the fact that they're making these poor people bake outdoors in a heatwave. Twice. But Paul's general attitude is certainly not making anything better, and the chemistry between the show's leads is joyless and forced.
Perhaps some of the issues are due to the difficult filming situations the show faced this year, as it shoved everyone involved with the production into a quarantine bubble so that they could get the season made at all. And the Baking Show deserves praise for even putting out episodes in 2020 - plenty of shows haven't, and won't. But Season 8 has also shown us that something is very wrong in the world of the tent, and they somehow need to get things back on track next season. Does that mean different hosts? A different attitude? A return to basics? All of the above?
How have you felt about this season of the Great British Baking Show? Has it worked for you? Why or why not?