The Great British Baking Show is entering the holiday season on a high, fresh off of the finale of one of the show's best-received seasons in years. Now that the Bake-Off is back on everyone's Nice list, it's decorating the tent for Christmas with a two-episode holiday special, dropping on Netflix this week. The Christmas special, followed by a New Year's special, are a great chance to visit with some familiar faces, re-acquaint ourselves with what passes for holiday-themed sweets in Britain, and crown a winner based on a single (and chaotic) episode's worth of bakes.
The most recent season of The Great British Baking Show could not have come at a better time for the show. Since GBBS began dropping on Netflix simultaneous with its weekly airings in Britain, it's become more of a Discourse Show on this side of the pond — i.e. new episodes get watched, pored over on social media, and churned out just like each week's Succession or Loki or the like. This has been both good and bad, as what was once a comfort TV binge for American viewers began creeping into the realm of Something We Argue About Every Week. Or at least something we complain about every week. Not without justification, of course. The prevalence of the Hollywood Handshake; the void left behind by Mel, Sue, and Mary Berry; the over-reliance on elaborately constructed showstopper requirements; Matt Lucas and Noel Fielding yukking it up too much — all deeply fair game for criticism. And all of which presented themselves in one way or another during Series 12, the show's most recent season. Luckily, Series 12 also featured some of the best bakers to grace the tent in a while, leaving fans with a particularly satisying final four .
In other words, we're in a pretty festive mood heading into the American premiere of these two holiday specials — which is why it's a bit off that these two hours, while new to us, were broadcast in the UK a year ago. Of course, American Bake-Off fans are no strangers to having to wait a while for new episodes, and we're happy to get what we get, but it's still tough to resist the urge to scream when Prue mentions how hard a year 2020 was and how it'll be good to put it behind us. YES, THAT'S WHAT HAPPENED ALL RIGHT.
Anyway... The first of the two episodes is Christmas themed, and as a present, one of our two usual hosts is absent. Don't get excited, it's not Matt; instead, we lose a Noel Fielding and gain a Tom Allen. Yes, Tom's presence means that we now have two white, bald, deeply silly comedians running commentary during the baking, but at least Tom has brought a fuzzy purple dinner jacket with him. The contestants in the first episode are all from more recent seasons: there's Ruby, who was a finalist in Series 9 (2018); there's Rosie, who hung on by her fingertips to make it to the top four of Series 10 (2019); there's James, who didn't quite make it halfway through Series 8; and then there's Jamie, who you may remember from Series 10 as the guy who looked like your son's dumbest high-school friend. They're all back, and all subject to the same GBBO bugaboos as ever: ovens that don't get hot enough, under-proofed doughs, and baked goods that are too raw for Paul Hollywood to risk his delicate system by sampling. This episode is worth it to watch Ruby be delightful once again, for the parts where everybody bashes the idea of baking a homepage panettone when you can just get one at the grocery store for cheap and save the time, and for a reminder that the British idea of a Christmas pudding isn't at all the treat you're imagining in your head.
Noel is back in the fold for the New Year's episode, which is a relief mostly because how tragic would it have been to welcome back Series 10's gothy chanteuse Helena without Noel around to chit-chat with her about eyeliner and which one of them should be asked to guest star on What We Do in the Shadows? The New Year's episode in general has a lot more personality and fan enthusiasm in its lineup. In addition to the always delightful and on-brand Helena — her signature crumble is designed to be a graveyard, representing how we all feel the morning after New Year's Eve — there's Series 10's boy wonder Henry (still looking smart in a tie and not a day over twelve), as well as two former champions in Series 9's meek Rahul (he isn't any more outwardly confident) and Series 5's steady Nancy. As Rahul sums up his competition, Nancy is the most knowledgeable baker he knows, Henry is the cutest, and Helena is the quirkiest. Rahul, I suppose, is the most perceptive.
The New Year's episode also boasts the biggest actual challenge of the two episodes: a technical where the bakers are tasked with making bao buns filled with crispy duck. It's the only moment that invites the dreaded Discourse Monster back into the show, so get ready to have some kind of opinion on GBBO's shortcomings when it comes to its bakers' familiarity with more diverse culinary traditions.
All told, The Great British Baking Show: Holiday is a triumph of scale and comfort more than anything. With just two episodes, you're not going to end up committed to a season that you might not have time to finish. And with this family reunion vibe at work, The Great British Baking Show gets to continue its hot streak headed into 2022. (Just don't tell Prue).
The Great British Baking Show: Holidays Season 4 drops on Netflix Friday, December 3rd.
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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.