Netflix’s Is It Cake? shows that internet-influenced TV has gone too far

Suspense hangs in the air of a studio lit an ominous purple, as a man in a suit holds a sword, ready to swing downwards. The people lined up in front of him watching bite the insides of their mouth, peer forwards, hold their breath, as the metal strikes. The blade cuts down into its target: a croissant. “It’s not cake!” the man, Saturday Night Live‘s Mikey Day, announces. The onlookers sigh; the earth spins on its axis.

I describe for you here an early scene in the first episode of Netflix’s brand new competition show Is It Cake? which is based on a viral video trend that lasted for about a week in the summer of 2020 (when, famously, everyone using the internet was definitely in their right minds.)

The show gathers nine of America’s finest bakers of cakes which actually look like hamburgers, shoes, wads of cash, and other things that are not cake, to compete for money and glory. In each episode, three of the nine contestants make a cake that a panel of judges will not be able to identify as cake in a line-up (challenges include fast food cakes, handbag cakes, and fruit and vegetable cakes). Those who succeed win a cash prize, and advance to the next round. In the finale, $50,000 is up for grabs.

Mikey Day in Is it Cake? (Photo: Netflix)

It’s a fairly standard reality competition show – with small elements of Bake Off-style cooking commentary, which is oddly the most interesting part, because these bakers are clearly so skilled and specialist – but not one that works enormously well considering that most of the time, the judging panel is able to guess which item is the cake, because it’s obvious. In episode one, the winner is a man who sprinkles clearly fake-looking pieces of faux tomato onto the real tacos, to throw the judges off the scent.

In Netflix’s super well-lit studio, it’s quite a lot easier to identify the cake than it was on a smaller, less well-defined phone screen. Plus, the original videos which came to prominence in the “Everything Is Cake” trend lasted for seconds, while Is It Cake? attempts to drag the concept – which is as simple cutting into say, a lipstick, only to discover that yep, it’s actually a funfetti sponge – out into a limp competition format.

Is It Cake? is inevitably a bit of a flop, but it does offer an interesting perspective about the way TV, and particularly streaming services, currently work. I’m reminded at this juncture of a recent video by the Jordan Firstman, of whom, like like everyone else who lists “going on my phone” as one of their hobbies, I’m a big fan.

Firstman became well-known during the pandemic for his Instagram “impressions”: “this is my impression of a Bluetooth speaker that will not pair”; “this is my impression of banana bread’s publicist”. This week, I particularly enjoyed an “impression of an exec at a streaming service.”

Firstman witters, in an insipid, pitched-up voice, “I was thinking, what if we turned that podcast in to a docuseries […] and then we could turn that docuseries into a scripted series […] so then you got a scripted series, based on a docuseries, based on a podcast.” He lampoons the exhausting media cycle that we find ourselves in, apparently as a result of the streaming boom, in which American “creative directors” called “Ben” and/or “Kyle” bluff upwards by convincing the men holding the purse strings at these companies that they have their fingers on the pulse because they know how to get podcasts on their phones.

The video is a succinct way of summarising the way we have lately been bombarded by different versions of the same story or trend from various angles (just look at the life cycles of true crime or “scammer” media). With Is It Cake?, ever keen to break new ground, Netflix bravely go even further, repurposing yet another of the internet’s momentary foibles – the flames of which are so often fanned by breathless aggregation sites writing countless articles about what “TikTokers” are “obsessed with” now – into hours of content.

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Recent streaming hits provide great examples of why this insistence on engaging with online virality is all so annoying and repetitive: Inventing Anna began life as an internet-breaking article, and was made for TV (with a companion podcast) by Shonda Rhimes and Netflix.

Both Hulu’s The Dropout (with Amanda Seyfried as Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, currently airing in the UK on Disney+) and Apple TV+’s WeCrashed, which features Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway as the couple at the helm of the once-great start-up WeWork, are based on popular podcasts (both of these stories were also the subjects of documentaries: HBO’s The Inventor, and WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Million Unicorn); Peacock recently aired Joe vs. Carole – based on the podcast of the same title, which itself came before Netflix’s Tiger King docuseries – starring John Cameron Mitchell and Kate McKinnon.

We think of TV as a medium that is separate to the internet, because it pre-dates it, but with the dominance of streaming, it’s no longer really true. TV happens on the internet in the same way that podcasts and articles do, and therefore it’s unsurprising that it would attempt to chase its trends and interests. The dramas above were commissioned because we’re already familiar with the stories they are telling, rather than in spite of that fact, and Is It Cake?, presumably, was made because Netflix executives thought the viral trend was popular and accessible, and they wanted a slice.

But these attempts to engage with what is happening online feel ineffectual and disheartening. It’s like streaming services announcing to the internet, “I’m not like regular TV, I’m cool TV,” in the manner of Amy Poehler’s Mean Girls mom. The internet’s attention span is tiny, whereas TV is in most cases a longform medium (plus it takes much longer to make, so often by the time these shows land, the trend or original event has long since passed), and because of this dissonance, I can’t think of many internet trends that have been transformed into an exciting or original TV series.

Trying to keep up with the speed at which the internet moves, and its “obsessions” which last for mere days (remember sea shanties?), isn’t worth it, it doesn’t make any sense, and it’s patronising for audiences who are, surprisingly, capable of holding many different ideas and narratives in their minds at once.

Exciting new voices and original concepts should be the priority for streamers – engaging people on a different level to the ubiquitous algorithm. I’ll happily look at a 30-second video of a realistic-looking taco that is actually a cake when it’s served to me on a video app – why not?! – but watching a 40 minute programme whose tension hinges on that fact is just depressing.

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