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Why Star Baker Still Matters on The Great British Baking Show

In an era of Hollywood Handshakes and just-vibes TV, winning an episode still means something.
  • The Great British Baking Show series 13 (Photo: Netflix)
    The Great British Baking Show series 13 (Photo: Netflix)

    A new season of The Great British Baking Show is in full swing, which has already tackled biscuits and bread, puddings and pies, and somewhat regrettably, "Mexican Week." It's been a fun season full of compelling and likable characters, but it's also highlighted a long-simmering question: What are the true metrics for success on GBBS, and should we even care?

    The basic structure of any given Great British Baking Show episode is both incredibly simple and somewhat vague. Three baking tasks happen over the span of a few days: a Signature challenge, a Technical challenge, and a Showstopper challenge. Newcomers to the show could watch for a few weeks before grasping the qualitative difference between the Signature and the Showstopper, but the Technical is, as its name suggests, the most regimented. The bakers are all assigned an intentionally underwritten recipe of the same dish; the goal is to turn out something that is as close to the "correct" version that the judges have in mind. The finished product is judged blind (i.e. without knowing who baked what) and then ranked in order from worst to best. It's the closest the show comes to tallying scores. Otherwise, decisions on who gets eliminated and who is named Star Baker each week are at the discretion of the judges.

    But a funny thing happened to GBBS after original judge Mary Berry left the show in 2016. While Berry and fellow judge Paul Hollywood felt like separate but equally influential judges, the current partnership of Hollywood and Prue Leith feels incredibly unbalanced. Hollywood's tastes tend to dominate, while Leith is reduced to second banana who has a regular appreciation for booze in desserts. And as Hollywood's influence has increased, the mythical "Hollywood Handshake" crept into practice. Suddenly, bakers getting Hollywood's firm-wristed show of respect was the ultimate badge of honor, surpassing even Star Baker.

    The apex of Hollywood Handshake hysteria came back in Series 9, when he handed out a whopping 12 of them across the season. He's pared them down in the few seasons since, whether intentionally or not, but they're still showcased as the major superlatives of the season. Last season, Giuseppe got the first Hollywood Handshake of that installment, and it solidified him as the early favorite, en route to the championship. Meanwhile, the season's first two Star Baker designations went to Jurgen, who didn't even make the finale.

    But, see, we're already falling into a bit of a trap here. We're assuming that The Great British Baking Show should be a stats show. This is the trap that RuPaul's Drag Race fans fell into ages ago, and they've been mired in it ever since. The idea is that by tallying up wins and losses over the course of the season, you can determine who "deserves" to win and who doesn't (and thus raise hell if and when the latter ever triumphs over the former).

    This was perhaps an inevitable development for a sufficiently popular show in an age when the internet and its Wikipedia pages full of handy little High/Low/Safe tables give us easy access to a competition show's metrics of success. It gives us something to argue about on Twitter, which is always good for enhancing a show's popularity, but not as good for enhancing the enjoyment of watching a show. Especially one like GBBS, which at its best is the ultimate vibes show. It gained popularity, especially in its U.S. crossover, as escapist entertainment. Nothing is more lethal to good vibes than an argument over whether three Star Bakers and zero last-place Technicals outweighs two Hollywood Handshakes.

    So with the Hollywood Handshake attacking it from the left and the desire to make GBBS vibes-y again coming at it from the right, what's the point in caring about who gets Star Baker each week? The answer to that is the same as the answer to what is the show's appeal in the first place: the bakers themselves. It's the bakers' earnest and endearing striving to get that Star Baker designation that makes it matter. Sandro has been a favorite of the fans and judges all season, but in Dessert Week, he spoke so longingly about hoping to achieve Star Baker to validate his success on the show. "He's been craving Star Baker from the get-go," said Dawn, moments before Sandro was indeed named Star Baker for the week.

    Meanwhile, Syabira's consistent excellence (up until a stumble in Dessert Week) kept her tantalizingly close to winning Star Baker, but she kept getting aced out at the finish line, giving fans even more of a reason to rally behind her until the sweet release during Halloween Week when she finally triumphed. Maxy and Janusz, with two Star Baker designations apiece, have been flying high with confidence, and that shows in the daring and assured bakes they've delivered since.

    This goes for the Hollywood Handshake too, by the way. Fans may find it annoying — mostly because Paul Hollywood is annoying — but the bakers have come to value it and crave it as proof that they're succeeding. These aren't metrics to be tallied by season's end to spit out a qualitatively superior winner. They're gold stars for a job well done.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The Great British Baking Show, Netflix, Paul Hollywood, Prue Leith