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The terrible new season of 'The Great British Baking Show' has chosen style over substance

Kelly Lawler
USA TODAY

Spoiler alert! The following contains details from this week's episode of Netflix's "The Great British Baking Show," including the eliminated contestant. 

It was Paul Hollywood, the steely blue-eyed judge of Britain's cross-Atlantic hit "The Great British Baking Show" who spoke the words "style over substance" to 2013 contestant (and eventual winner) Frances Quinn, noting that her penchant for creating dramatic designs for her baked creations sometimes meant that she didn't concentrate on textures and flavor. Sure, the judges (Hollywood and Mary Berry) wanted it to look pretty. But mostly they wanted it to taste good. 

Six years later, Hollywood, along with current judge Prue Leith, has played a starring role in the worst season of the long-running "Baking Show," through a combination of baffling eliminations, judging favoritism and a poor crop of bakers. Like a rubbery tureen or a falling tower of biscuits, the judges and producers of the series have chosen style – and an ugly style at that – over the substance that made the baking competition a sensation. 

Hosts Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding and judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith on "The Great British Baking Show."

The current season of "Baking Show," streaming Fridays on Netflix a few days after it airs on Channel 4 in the U.K., feels like a betrayal of the seasons that came before. The primary is the eliminations, which are shocking to the extreme when bakers who win challenges or are praised by the judges are kicked out instead of their disastrously performing competitors. 

Two recent episodes ("Dairy Week" and "Roaring 20s Week") had downright maddening eliminations that drew massive controversy among the "Baking Show" fans on both sides of the pond. In "Dairy Week," Priya O'Shea delivered arguably the worst bake ever seen in the Technical Challenge, one of three challenges bakers must perform each week, yet hung on over Phil Thorne, eliminated for his so-so Showstopper bake. In the 20s competition, Michelle Evans-Fecci and Helena Garcia both left, even after Helena won the Technical Challenge and Michelle performed admirably in the Signature Challenge. 

The rules, as established in nine previous seasons, dictate  that the episode winner (or "Star Baker") and the departing contestant are chosen based on their performance in the Signature, Technical and Showstopper challenges. The Showstopper always weighed a little more heavily in the judges' decision, but watching their critiques and simply seeing the state of the bakes made it easy for viewers to discern who was in trouble and who was excelling. The time a contestant made an angel food cake with salt instead of sugar? Yeah, that elimination was pretty easy to call. 

This season, the bakers' performance seemingly has little to do with the results, so it's either a game of favoritism played by Paul and Prue, a game played by the producers through editing to make the eliminations more surprising, or dumb decisions about who stays and who goes. Helena was one of the quirkiest bakers to enter the tent, bringing her goth aesthetic and intentionally creepy-looking bakes that never sat well with either Paul or Prue, so her elimination felt more vindictive than deserved. Similarly, when Michelle, a modern baker with a thriving Instagram feed, turned in a trendy geode-style cake, Prue's disdain was palpable. 

Phil put together a boring collection of Indian milk sweets for his Showstopper in Dairy Week, hardly a capital offense, while Priya turned in raw, broken Maids of Honor tarts during the Technical and couldn't manage to get all of them on the plate. But Phil somehow left, leading to fan speculation that the producers were more interested in young, attractive contestants such as Priya than middle-aged truck driver Phil. Even though Priya was cut at the end of the latest, desserts-themed episode, it didn't alleviate the sting that her spot in the competition should have gone to someone more talented.  

The contestants, hosts and judges of "The Great British Baking Show" Season 10.

Talent, really, is the basis for the series' woes this year. The 13 bakers selected for the competition are simply less talented than their predecessors. It's hard to imagine any of the remaining bakers, besides multiple Star Baker Steph Blackwell and her frequent Star Baker competitor David Atherton, making it this far in any other season.

It's easy to see how much weaker these bakers are. Priya wasn't the only one who fumbled with the Maids of Honor Technical Challenge, a relatively easy-looking recipe involving basics such as rough puff pastry, lemon curd (a common British condiment), cheese curds and a stencil of an iconic British symbol, the Tudor Rose. Despite the simple elements, the tarts were so bad, Hollywood nearly walked out on the judging session. A week later, the bakers were asked to make choux pastry, a dough that's a staple of the series, and multiple bakers had never made it before. 

For what they lack in cooking knowledge, they make up for in bold character, emotionally reacting to each challenge and offering quirky one-liners when necessary. It seems clear that the casting department went for personality over skill this season, a strategy that has doomed reality competition shows in the past – just think of the years on "Project Runway" when contestants were close to becoming violent yet could barely throw together an outfit. Especially on "Baking Show," popular because of its simplicity and sweetness, choosing drama over the ability to make a stunningly beautiful cake is a terrifically poor decision. 

This is the third season of the series to air on Channel 4 instead of a BBC network in the U.K. and on Netflix instead of PBS in the USA. The Channel 4 jump lost the series its original hosts (Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins) and Berry as a judge. Fans feared the move would ruin the essence of the show. Although the first Channel 4 season, which aired in 2017, had all the hallmarks of the "Baking Show" we love, the cracks in the series are starting to show. Last year, bakers had to complete inane challenges such as making "Biscuit Selfies" that are wildly different from the classic British recipes so frequently featured in earlier seasons. 

Clearly the judges and producers are trying to shake up the series to keep it relevant into a new decade, but in doing so, they misread the show's appeal. We don't watch "Baking Show" for drama, hot young stars, food oddities or any kind of newness. We watch for the same reason we eat warm chocolate chip cookies off the baking tray: It's familiar, comforting and so very sweet.