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My favorite thing about the Great British Bake Off? The camaraderie that blunts some of the more toxic elements of competition shows, while still letting contestants' stunning baking achievements shine. A new Netflix TV series, School of Chocolate, takes GBBO a step further in one important way, by turning the competition on its head.
It simply eliminates the elimination.
In the opposite of cutthroat competition, everyone gets to stay in the tent. Nobody is asked to pack their whisks and go. The result is somehow richer, more impressive and more compelling than watching contestants get picked off one by one -- which, if you think about it, is actually pretty boring compared with seeing devastatingly beautiful chocolate art unfold (although the people who spent literal billions of hours watching Squid Game may disagree).
Chocolate sculpture with interactive hinges. A chocolate octopus that looks impossibly real (pictured below). Edible surprises layered within clever cakes that are both instantly mouthwatering and too gorgeous to eat.
As with actual school, the School of Chocolate cohort remains intact throughout the entire competition, shedding tears, getting catty, jockeying for position -- and a $50,000 cash prize -- and creating piece after piece of astounding, towering, gravity-defying show art out of pure chocolate and pastry that at times makes me gasp in awe.
The point of it all is for contestants to learn advanced techniques and improve over challenges that push their skills to the brink and reveal the breakout chocolatiers we can't help but elevate to star status.
Netflix may call the show "feel-good," but that doesn't mean it's all fondant and buttercream in School.
The tone is a squeeze sharper than the good-natured, sometimes frothy and saccharine Great British Bake Off. There's deep tension from the start of the eight-episode season, and the stakes feel surprisingly real. Poor performers are forced to sit out rounds, and only the top two vie for the final challenge. Amid grudging pats on the back, gamesmanship occasionally rears its head.
But while the cream quickly rises to the top, keeping the class together gives viewers who care more about the jaw-dropping creations and less about the backstabbing a wonderful gift: more.
Rather than eject skilled professionals who had a bad day or didn't quite master an architectural challenge mere cake-baking mortals would be hard-pressed to attempt, we lovers of food art witness even underdogs create feats of incredible culinary imagination (including an astonishing salmon roe "nigiri" you have to see to believe).
School of Chocolate isn't perfect by any means. Favored contestants were too obvious, and one episode literally divided the group's strongest and "weakest" players -- remember, these are all skilled professionals -- into two glaringly unequal assignments. By retaining many of the usual competitive elements and structure, more time than I would like is spent on character triumphs and angst, with less time on the whizzbang confections I came here to lap up.
While the announcement of winning "student" is anticlimactic, each contestant has their moment of accomplishment and growth. The journey feels deliciously satisfying, earned. I chalk that up in large part to the decision to preserve more contestants in the total mix, who are given a chance to rebound with soaring creativity.
Ultimately, this decision treats viewers to more cakes and chocolate overall, not fewer. Keeping the cohort together is a bold decision for a competition show -- and it works. School of Chocolate dares to imagine the treasured luxury ingredient as not simply a momentary treat but a deeply challenging medium for artistic expression, one that engages the eyes and mind as well as the tongue. Technical, temperamental and ultimately, ephemeral.