That this has been a low-key season of The Great British Baking Show is far from an insult. Quite the opposite — it’s been refreshing to see the show go back to basics in Season 11, with lots of pleasant Brits whose baking triumphs and tribulations never once made your blood pressure go up. No twink romances, no Italian dynamos, no controversies over ill-conceived nationally themed weeks.
It's not to say that this season was without its share of memorable contestants or narratives. There was new co-host Alison Hammond, whose established a good rapport with the contestants (though let's have a talk about Prue before next season).
50-year-old Saku Chandrasekara was a hoot, with a funny sound bite for nearly every occasion. Tasha Stones, the first deaf contestant in the show's history, came out of the gate so strong, with two Star Baker distinctions in the first two weeks, only to have to miss a week due to illness. She was never quite able to regain her spark. When Tasha was eliminated in the semifinals, it was a shock not so much on the merits of the bakers but because it left the final three — Dan Hunter, Josh Smalley, and Matty Edgell — without much of a narrative heading into the finale. Three good bakers, to be sure, but what was the story here?
All three finalists fit neatly into some pretty standard GBBS archetypes. Dan was your typical unassuming middle-aged white-bread nice guy who everyone respected. Josh, the unassuming sweetie-pie who made up for what he lacked in gregariousness with the season's most consistently impressive bakes. And Matty, the season's resident lad.
There's one every year, some twentysomething who looks like he just rolled out of a college dorm who barely makes his way through a few challenges and then is neatly disposed of before the endgame. Every week, Matty would encounter some sort of baking element he'd never worked with before; seemingly every challenge was a learning experience. But after a surprise Star Baker win in Chocolate Week, followed by a second in Party Week, Matty proved himself to be a cut above his archetype. Still the least likely to win, but deserving of his status as “lad finalist.”
What no one could have predicted was how rough the final showstopper bakes would be during today’s finale. Josh, who finished first in the technical, was the frontrunner, heading towards a fully justifiable, if not terribly exciting win. His tiered celebration cake was the only one that was structurally sound, but it was also, per Paul Hollywood, just this side of boring. And while viewers will always have to trust the judges on the taste element, based on visual presentation alone, it was hard to disagree. Josh's pastel tiers were neat but very dull, and his flowery piping around the sides looked like an arts-and-crafts project. "Boring" isn't exactly the same as "bad," so Josh still had a shot at winning, but was that cake really going to be the winning bake for Season 11?
It certainly wasn't going to be Dan, whose cake looked like it had barely survived an earthquake, with big cracks in its sides and (mushy-looking) macarons falling off of the base. After he'd already biffed the eclairs in the signature, Dan had fallen out of contention. Which left Matty, whose top cake tier was tilting towards its side and whose frosting left threadbare patches. Another ugly cake, making for a trio of disappointment for the season's most important challenge.
Just then… a silver lining. And a pretty significant one. Matty's top tier cake, a chocolate genoise sponge with French buttercream that had Prue and Paul weak in the knees. The cake looked light and fluffy as a cloud, appearing scrumptious enough that you'd pity anyone watching this episode on an empty stomach.
Suddenly, a Josh win was thrown into doubt, and when it came time for Alison to reveal the winner, it was a genuine nail-biter. In the end, Josh was the strongest baker across the whole season — and even through most of the finale episode — but delivered his least impressive showstopper at the most crucial moment. That left open the door for a better story: Matty, the first ever lad champion of The Great British Baking Show. And given how good that chocolate cake looked, a justifiable winner besides.
From the ashes of what might have been the most disastrous final showstopper round in series history, The Great British Baking Show salvaged one of its most memorable winners. It was nice to be reminded that even at its most pleasantly low-key, this show can still surprise you.
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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.