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Melanie McFarland

Alison Hammond brings new zest to "GBBO"

Success on "The Great British Baking Show" relies on achieving the right balance of flavors, textures, sweetness and style. Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith demand contestants unify all these ingredients perfectly while also accounting for each of their tastes. In Season 11's opening episode, "Cake Week," Hollywood advises one contender not to be afraid to "kick us in the teeth" with her citrus notes, and praises another for incorporating enough coffee flavored oomph to wake them up. Smart bakers who make it to the tent also know that booze is the way to Leith's heart – but not too much.

Competitors are constantly figuring out perfect ratios for their bakes. So have the producers, who had a much easier time replacing Mary Berry with Leith than finding the right partner for host Noel Fielding. Introducing him beside the extremely mid Sandi Toksvig enabled the audience to appreciate the gentle good humor the rock-and-sweet roll performer brought to the tent.

Toksvig's exit led to the audience having to stomach "Little Britain" star Matt Lucas for three seasons. (Yes, only three, although much in the way a thudding headache makes time slow to a crawl, his grating onscreen presence making Lucas' tenure feel longer.) But in late 2022 Lucas delivered sweet relief to millions when he officially tossed in his tea towel, leading producers to hire U.K. TV personality Alison Hammond.

Most Americans probably aren't familiar with Hammond, whose first broadcast exposure came by way of the British edition of "Big Brother" back in 2002, after which she landed a presenter job at ITV's "This Morning." She since become a friendly fixture in U.K. TV, appearing in an assortment of reality shows and co-hosting the 2023 "The British Academy Film Awards." All of these gigs established Hammond as an ebullient, easygoing host who emphasizes fun over showstopping jokiness, precisely the leavening "GBBO" (the colloquial acronym based on its U.K. title "Great British Bake Off") has lacked all this time.

Experienced bakers will attest that finding the right substitution for ingredients that are no longer available is a matter of trial, error and patience. Eleven seasons into the Netflix version of "GBBO" – our British cousins count the seasons that aren't on the service, meaning they're on Season, er, Series 14 – we've moved beyond wishing the producers could replicate the foundational equilibrium of Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc. Life goes on, and they've long since moved on.

Fielding has long served as the stronger partner in his co-hosting duos. Lucas' attempts to match Fielding's low-key levity shoved an eccentric twinge to each of their interactions, making his interplay with Fielding and the bakers both superfluous and weird. Whereas Hammond understands the assignment, bringing an easy, complementary pep that lifts Fielding's gentleness. She comprehends the win-win dynamic of a dual hosting model, especially when the other host is a professional comic. With the funny handled, Hammond only needs to bring the fun, which she does.  

From the moment she's introduced to the excited, anxious bakers, Hammond's smile and bright Birmingham lilt invite them to if not relax, at least remind them to have a good time. "GBBO" relies on the bakers' personalities to make each season rise, but if you've found yourself thinking recent seasons could use a little something, the new co-host reveals what's been missing: genuine zest.

She also reminds us why this show still needs co-hosts 13 years after its debut. Think about it – Leith and Hollywood have distinct personalities and enough experience to both host and judge these episodes and challenges. Doing both jobs would remove the mystique Hollywood has constructed among the "GBBO" bakers and future contestants. His inscrutable glares and theatrical pauses are the intangibles that make this show unique. 

When he takes a bite of cake this week and, with his eyes downcast says, "I don't like that," there's no way of knowing for sure that he isn't serious. He follows this by turning his gaze to the sweet's creator and adding, "I love it," which is both a relief and makes one feel silly for being taken in thusly after all these years.  

So — could "GBBO" operate without hosts? Sure. But think of Hammond and Fielding as the vanilla extract in the production mix. Leaving them out would result in a functionally sound cake that isn't quite where it needs to be. They boost the kindly spirits wafting around each triumph and defeat while allowing Hollywood and Leith to say less and still surprise us.

Such an energy refreshment is especially welcome at this stage in the "GBBO" lifespan, when it seems like the pros are running out of challenges that can stump the bakers, many of whose skills might offer the pros some competition. This is one of the few reality TV shows whose positive influence is noticeable; the challenges have gotten more difficult and obscure over the years, mostly to meet the skill level and creativity of the chosen bakers' skills.

Within the latest batch of bakers is a woman who forages for her ingredients, a man who brews his own beer and brings homegrown rhubarb into the tent with him, and a woman whose showstopper set up Leith to walk into a beaver joke that temporarily incapacitates everyone. Hammond picks it up later when the judges and hosts are behind closed doors and, importantly, knows when to let the gag go.

The return of "The Great British Baking Show" is a wonderful fall ritual even in "off" seasons. Hammond's addition, we're happy to say, might be the cherry that restores its showstopper status.

New episodes of "The Great British Baking Show" stream Fridays on Netflix.

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