(NYTimes) - Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc didn't drop by to make salacious comments about the bakers' buns, and Mary Berry didn't describe any cakes as "scrummy". Still, British TV critics seemed to agree that the first episode of The Great British Bake Off to air on Channel 4 wasn't that different from the version that millions of people have fiercely loved since the show debuted on the BBC in 2010.
Love Productions and Channel 4 began the series' eighth season Tuesday night by introducing a new roster of amateur bakers, all competing to be the last one standing after weeks of serving biscuits, scones, cakes and pies to the judges.
Fans have been especially attentive to this season because of major alterations to the core cast. Offbeat comedians Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding have replaced Giedroyc and Perkins as hosts, while the chef and writer Prue Leith has taken over for Berry as judge.
The turnover sprung from a decision by the show's producers, Love Productions, to move the popular series from the BBC, to a commercial rival that could pay a higher fee. Those changes have rattled faithful viewers, who've come to think of the Bake Off as an oasis of civility in an angry age.
Since the fifth season, which aired in 2014, this amiable competition of nonprofessional bakers has averaged over 10 million viewers a week in Britain. As the country's decision to leave the European Union has challenged national unity, many Bake Off fans have clung to the show as a model of what the United Kingdom can be - with country grandmas and big city immigrants sharing hugs and recipes in a makeshift kitchen in a white tent in a field.
The cast has changed, but the new Great British Bake Off doesn't mess with the formula. The demanding host Paul Hollywood - who has made the transition to Channel 4 - still judges the bakes, which are divided into the familiar "signature challenge", the difficult "technical", and the more artistic "showstopper". Fielding and Toksvig ape their predecessors by saying, "On your marks, get set, bake!" in unison.
So far, critics have been open to the evolution. In The Daily Telegraph, Michael Hogan gave the Channel 4 version five of five stars, calling it "the same flavorsome confection" and saying "dough devotees can rest easy". The Guardian's Lucy Managan agreed, writing, "The whole thing was a glorious return to - or rather, retention of - form," adding, "This is where I want to be when the bombs start falling."
In a blog during the broadcast for The Guardian, Rhik Samadder offered a more muted reaction: "It's long, and adverts are...wearing," Samadder concluded, referring to the fact that the BBC, which is publicly funded, does not have commercials. "But Sandi and Noel could work well if they relax, and the bakers themselves impressed."
Some critics were less gung-ho. The New Statesman's Anna Leszkiewicz used terms like "stilted" and "self-conscious", insisting, "Every single change to the show has been for the worse." On Twitter, meanwhile, viewers expressed irritation with the commercials, and didn't quite know what to make of Fielding's soft voice and spacey demeanour.
Leith though won high marks among fans for her tough judging style, which is more openly critical and less cushioned than Berry's. "She is just the right mixture of disapproving mum and authoritative school headmistress," Dianne Bourne wrote in The Manchester Evening News.
Even the harsher critics seem to second Samadder's assessment that the bakers are the real stars. They also wowed fans and sceptics alike with their "showstoppers", which included cakes sculpted to resemble a Russian nesting doll, a watermelon, and a loaf of bread.
In The Daily Mail, Sarah Rainey echoed the voices of so many people who need The Great British Bake Off to mean something, writing "I really, really wanted to hate it". But thanks largely to the contestants, she added, the show is "impossible to hate".