The case for 'Is It Cake?,' Netflix's new game show
If you associate the word "hyper-realistic" with art, you might be surprised by the fact that it is also a subtype of cake. Generally speaking, a hyper-realistic cake is a cake that is designed to be indistinguishable from some other physical object in texture, size, finish, and so forth, such that if you saw it next to the real object it's based on, you couldn't tell the two apart.
There is nothing more fitting for a silly internet phenomenon than dragging it back into the spotlight after it's mostly dead and resurrecting it to make it something far more, and also somehow less, than it deserves to be.
They've existed for a long time, but a lot of people first saw hyper-realistic cakes in the summer of 2020, when the "everything is cake" meme started going around, featuring videos in which someone would cut into a shoe or a plant or a roll of toilet paper, revealing that in fact, you were looking at a cake. Surprise!
There's something perfect about the fact that almost two years after this wave hit, Netflix has premiered a game show — called, appropriately, Is It Cake? -- that takes this paper-thin idea and makes eight episodes out of it. There is nothing more fitting for a silly internet phenomenon than dragging it back into the spotlight after it's mostly dead and resurrecting it to make it something far more, and also somehow less, than it 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 being mean; he essentially refers to himself as such.) He presides over the following structure: The season's nine bakers compete against each other in a preliminary round that challenges them to look at several objects around the same theme (say, children's toys or things you'd see at a party) and discern which, in fact, is a cake. Based on the results of this round and who gets it right, three bakers advance to the final round, in which they each are assigned an item from that same theme that they will make as a hyper-realistic cake. We watch as, over eight hours, they painstakingly construct their cakes while being cheered on by their fellow bakers and sometimes (lovingly) heckled by Day. (Episodes after the first are a little different, in that a smaller selection of the nine starts the first round, based on what happened in the previous episodes, but let's not make it ... even more complicated.)
Then a panel of three celebrity(ish) judges is shown each contestant's cake alongside real objects (for example, your shoe cake is presented with four actual shoes, the next person's hat cake is displayed with some hats, etc.), and the judges have to identify which is the cake. Contestants win points for fooling the judges.
A couple of notes on detail: The contestant lineup stays the same all season, so nobody is eliminated along the way, and in order to end up with the right number of people doing the right things in the right rounds, there are some boring details about competition structure that you absolutely do not need to know about. And also, as you might imagine, people are not allowed to come up and examine everything up close, which would probably greatly improve your odds of picking out the cake. Those who are guessing are kept at a bit of a distance, which makes the whole thing seem sillier. Perhaps in the future, we will have hyper-hyper-realistic cakes that can fool the eye even from right up close.
But the most important note is that while the show is extremely silly and Day is a very self-aware host, the art of hyper-realistic cake-making takes true and tremendous skill. A lot of cake shows focus on the ability to make very big or very fancy or very elaborate cakes; this one laser-focuses in on, for instance, how hard it is to make a cake that convincingly looks like a cheap cloth bucket hat, so much that from a few feet away, you might think it was one. So while I already knew how people decorate with fondant and buttercream, and I already knew how the Ace of Cakes and the Cake Boss sculpt cakes into footballs and animals, this was a window into a skill I didn't know well.
Perhaps in the future, we will have hyper-hyper-realistic cakes that can fool the eye even from right up close.
There are all kinds of cool techniques for making edible items look like old leather, or like plastic, or (in one case) like a pompom on a party hat. Not making them suggest those things like a lot of regular cakes do, but making them indistinguishable from those things, such that you might not know the difference. If you start thinking about how hard it would be to make a cake that could fool the eye into thinking it was a stack of red Solo cups, you may find yourself thinking, "Huh, I wonder how that would be done," in a way you wouldn't about even the most beautiful tiered cake.
That's what makes this kind of a fun show. They found a branch of cake-making that, while it has certainly had its moments in the sun (just one example: the baker Yolanda Gampp did some 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 mock me if you will, mock Netflix if you will — there is a whimsically silly show here that is buttressed by a thing that's very hard to do. You put a skill in front of 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.
This essay first appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations on what's making us happy.
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