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Like so many things in this benighted year, the 2020 edition of The Great British Bake Off has been weird and contradictory. It was objectively one of the weaker seasons of the show, and yet it felt more necessary than ever before.
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD OBVIOUSLY DUH
It would be hard to deny that this season of Bake Off was a cut below even the already-lowered standards of the show’s post-BBC era. The contestants were mostly weaker—even the crowd favorites, like instant icon Rowan, just failed to bring the bakes over and over again. There were more challenges based around variations on a child’s homework assignment—how many times did we get a “tell us about your favorite memory”-style prompt this year? The less said about some of the theme weeks, the better. (Let us never speak of the horrors perpetrated during Japanese Week ever again.) Paul Hollywood’s face settling into a John Boehner-esque beef jerky vibe was more alarming than ever. And, most lamentably, this season featured the replacement of sensible, affable host Sandi Toksvig with Matt Lucas, whose screeching, gurning, exhausting antics were an exercise in endurance for bakers and viewers alike. (Lucas is a perfect example of why people who clearly self-identify as “the funny guy at the party” are poison.)
And yet, and yet, and yet. I have never hungered for Bake Off more than I have this year, for obvious reasons. It was a little pocket of light and joy, its serene pleasures a sharp and vivid relief from the horrors surrounding it. You looked out over your week and it was rain and thunder and then an hour of sunshine and relief. There was nothing else on television that could quite do that for me. I tried Nailed It, but watching people laugh about their failures over and over and over again got tiring. I tried The Great Pottery Throwdown, but watching people literally waiting for a bowl to dry out while an emotionally unstable judge alternately shouted and wept at them was not for me. Only Bake Off, it seemed, would do. So, for the last couple of months, I have forgiven the show its failures and allowed its healing qualities to wash over me.
This is all to say that Bake Off could have been twice as long this year and I would have been happy. We need it! But you can’t always get what you want, and anyway, the bakers this year had to isolate away from the world for the duration of the show; putting them through twice as much of that would be cruel. So it was that we reached the final this week—and in the end, the final was the slightly-crazed, skin-of-its-teeth affair that this year deserved.
I can’t say that any of the people who made it to the final were my favorites. My queen, Hermine, was knocked out last week, which was a real kick in the teeth. Instead, we were left with:
—Dave, this season’s extremely basic, California-loving security guard. Dave was nice enough, I guess, but not much more than that.
—Laura, my favorite of the finalists. Laura was sweet and plucky and had a deep and caring relationship with her wood-fired pizza oven at home, all of which endeared her to me. She was also the person on the show who seemed to embody 2020 the most, since she was always on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown.
—Peter, the youngest of the trio, a hollow-eyed Scottish lad whom host Noel Fielding once called a “baby-faced assassin” and who I would describe as either an Aryan robot or that self-flagellating albino monk from The Da Vinci Code. I think many people found Peter to be a charming youthful type. I watched him giving cakes the sort of look that you see in the parts of movies where they’re trying to show you why the psychopath got that way and just wanted to run in the other direction.
As I say, not the dream team. (Just for fun I also rewatched a bit of Season 7, with Jane, Candice, and Andrew in the final. Now there is quality.) But we carry on nonetheless.
The challenges in the final were, in order, a custard slice for the signature, a “walnut whirl” for the technical, and—sigh—a “dessert tower” with the theme of “your Bake Off experience” for the showstopper. (Was there ever a more shrug emoji ask?)
The main tension for me throughout was whether Laura would come through everything in one piece. Her yuzu-flavored custard slice didn’t set, causing her to literally stick her head into the freezer as she tried to stave off total emotional collapse. (Noel hustled over to give her a bizarrely touching pep talk involving Bjorn Borg.) And her walnut whirl was all over the place, all but ensuring that she wouldn’t win the final. The only question was whether she would be able to leave with her head held high. Thank the lord, then, that she pulled off a spectacular-tasting showstopper. That’s all you want out of this show, really: nice people doing a good job on something.
With Laura out of contention, it was down to Peter or Dave to win. The decision about which of these two meh men would emerge as the champion was supposedly the toughest in the history of Bake Off, although that makes a sort of sense, since they both underwhelmed in different ways in the final. Peter’s custard slice—which to me looked like a Nature’s Valley granola bar sat on top of a dessert—wowed the judges. But his showstopper—something called a “bonkers Bake Off bauble cake”—had elements dismissed as “stodgy” and disappointing by Paul and Prue, the latter of whom summed up the whole thing as a “good effort,” which is hardly the kind of unalloyed praise you want in a final showstopper. Dave’s custard slice was also praised to the skies, but his decision to revisit bakes he’d done badly over the course of the show resulted in a showstopper in which, surprise surprise, he did badly on some of the bakes again.
In the end, it was Peter who was crowned champion. OK! My resistance melted during the final bits—the part where the show goes through what all the bakers have been up to is some of the most reliably weepy stuff on TV, and I am a shameless TV weeper—but I remain immune to Peter’s charms. Bake Off, however, has lost none of its power. Even a lower-tier season is something to latch onto. Whatever my qualms, I am deeply thankful to have been wrapped up in it during this hell year.
Now they just have to get rid of Matt, please.
—Noel’s Mr. Spoon gag—where he got all the contestants to KISS the same SPOON—made my COVID-fearing soul leave my body. This is a pandemic, SIR.
—OK, Dave talking about the definition of insanity being doing something twice and expecting different results and then saying, “Einstein said that…Dave Einstein” was funny.
—Laura’s dad and her husband look the same. Just saying.