Reality TV is an odd fit for a streaming service like Netflix, but it must help fill up those ‘original’ content quotas to buy up international shows for markets they were never broadcast in. So it is with Australian Willy Wonka-inspired “Great British Bake Off” knock-off “Zumbo’s Just Desserts”.
Headed up by celebrated Australian pâtissier Adriano Zumbo, each episode sees amateur contestants trying to impress Zumbo and his fellow judge Rachel Khoo with their own creations, with the bottom two each show forced to battle it out against each other by replicating one of Zumbo’s own esoteric and technically challenging desserts to avoid elimination.
There’s an almost zealously bright and breezy attitude to “Zumbo’s Just Desserts”, from its gaudily coloured converted factory setting to the fantasy Candyland of the set, it’s clearly reaching for the magic and wonder of the 1971 Gene Wilder musical by way of musical cues from “Harry Potter” but it’s always trying too hard and never feels natural or authentic.
It’s not helped by Zumbo and Khoo’s stiffness on camera. They’re awkward in their delivery of the scripted banter and struggle, especially in early episodes to establish any kind of warmth or chemistry. They’re also hampered by a strange decision to keep the judges aloof from the contestants so there’s no casual interaction throughout the cooking like you have on bake off and there’s no discussion between judges and contestants until judging.
Lacking a host, such as Mel and Sue or, indeed, Noel and Sandy, it leaves a hole in the format and always makes the contestants feel isolated. Zumbo and Rachel do have an assistant – Gigi Falanga, whose primary role seems to be to screech time warnings to the contestants and, occasionally, visit them at their workstations to disrupt their efforts and chip away at their confidence.
The contestants are the usual mix of personalities you’d expect and it takes a few episodes before the real characters start to emerge. Mostly they’re a likable bunch, but every good drama needs a villain and “Zumbo’s Just Desserts” finds it in Daniel, an arrogant, semi-delusional misogynistic ex-bouncer whose sense of entitlement and propensity for blaming everyone except himself for any setback offers a perverse fascination and keeps you coming back for more in the hopes of seeing him get his comeuppance when you might have decided to pack in watching the series.
It’s all a bit over-egged, to be honest, but the refreshingly blunt attitudes of the Australian contestants means that, when it comes to the crunch, no feelings are spared between contestants. Of course, it’s so clumsily overproduced and archly edited that you can see the joins as the show manipulates you into seeing things the way it wants you to. Maybe Daniel’s a thoroughly nice bloke after all, although I doubt it.
Brash and showy instead of charming and cosy, “Zumbo’s Just Desserts” might satisfy your cravings in the absence of Paul Hollywood and pals but there’s no doubt it’s the high fructose corn syrup to “The Great British Bake Off”’s natural cane sugar.