The case of “Is It Cake?”, Netflix’s new game show
If you associate the word “hyper-realistic” with art, you might be surprised that it’s also a subtype of cake. Generally speaking, a hyperrealistic cake is a cake designed to be indistinguishable from another physical object in terms of texture, size, finish, etc., so that if you saw it next to the real object on which it is based, you might not distinguish between the two.
There’s nothing more fitting for a dumb internet freak than to bring it back into the spotlight after it’s mostly died and resurrect it to do something much more, and also somehow less, than he deserves to be.
They’ve been around for a long time, but a lot of people first saw hyper-realistic cakes in the summer of 2020, when the meme “everything is cake” started circulating, featuring videos in which someone was cutting up a shoe or a plant or a roll of toilet paper, revealing that you were, in fact, looking at a cake. Surprise!
There’s something perfect about the fact that nearly two years after that wave, Netflix has created a game show – aptly called, Is it cake? – which takes this paper-thin idea and makes it eight episodes. There’s nothing more fitting for a dumb internet freak than to bring it back into the spotlight after it’s mostly died and resurrect it to do something much more, and also somehow less, than he deserves to be.
Is it cake? is hosted by one of the less famous Saturday Night Live cast members, Mikey Day. (Please don’t think I’m mean; he’s basically referring to himself as such.) He presides over the following structure: the season’s nine bakers compete in a preliminary round that challenges you to look at several objects around the same theme (for example, children’s toys or things you would see at a party) and discern which, in fact, is a cake. Based on the results of this round and who succeeds, three bakers advance to the final round, in which they are each assigned an item of the same theme which they will make as a hyper-realistic cake. For eight hours, we watch them painstakingly build their cakes while being encouraged by their fellow bakers and sometimes (lovingly) heckled by Day. (The episodes after the first are a bit different, in that a smaller selection of the nine start the first round, based on what happened in the previous episodes, but let’s not get there… even Continued complicated.)
Then a panel of three famous(ish) judges sees each contestant’s cake alongside real objects (e.g. your shoe cake is presented with four real shoes, the next person’s hat cake is displayed with hats, etc.), and the judges having to identify who the cake is. Competitors earn points for fooling the judges.
A few notes on the details: the line-up of competitors stays the same all season, so no one gets knocked out along the way, and to end up with the right number of people doing the right things in the right laps, there’s some annoying details. about the competition structure that you absolutely don’t need to know about. And also, as you can imagine, people aren’t allowed to come and take a close look at everything, which would probably greatly improve your chances of picking the cake. Those who guess are kept a bit at a distance, which makes the whole thing more silly. Maybe in the future we’ll have hyper-hyper-realistic cakes that can fool the eye even up close.
But the most important point is that even though the show is extremely silly and Day is a very self-aware host, the art of making hyper-realistic cakes requires real and formidable skill. Many cake shows focus on being able to make very large or very fancy or very elaborate cakes; this one focuses on, for example, how hard it is to make a cake that looks convincingly like a cheap cloth bucket hat, so much so that from a few feet away you might think that it was one. So while I already knew how people decorated with fondant and buttercream, and I already knew how the Ace of Cakes and the Cake Boss sculpt cakes into footballs and animals, it was a window into a skill I was unfamiliar with.
Maybe in the future we’ll have hyper-hyper-realistic cakes that can fool the eye even up close.
There are all kinds of cool techniques for making edible items look like old leather, or plastic, or (in one case) a pom pom on a party hat. Don’t do them to suggest these things like many ordinary cakes do, but making them indistinguishable from these things, so you might not know the difference. If you start thinking about how hard it would be to bake a cake that could fool the eye into thinking it was a stack of red Solo cups, you might find yourself thinking, “Hey, I’m wonder how it would be done” in a like you wouldn’t even do for the prettiest of tier cakes.
That’s what makes this kind of show fun. They found a branch of baking that, while it certainly had its moments in the sun (just one example: baker Yolanda Gampp made impressive, hyper-realistic cakes on her mostly retired YouTube channel, How To Cake It), is not as familiar as making party cakes or wedding cakes.
So laugh at me if you will, laugh at Netflix if you will – there’s a whimsical, silly show here that’s underpinned by a very hard thing to do. You put a skill before me, an art, and I will be impressed by the artist. Even if the goal is to make a cake that looks exactly like a fishing tackle box.
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