We’ve been saying it a lot in recent years, but these are stressful times we’re living in. The war in Ukraine has us all worried about a potential World War III, a new COVID-19 subvariant is lurking around the corner, and our seasonal allergies are getting worse because the earth is dying. Prestige television shows that attempt to confront these dark times head-on are noble and important, but sometimes we need an escape, something that we can turn on as we turn off our brains for a few minutes. We need comfort food — specifically, cake.
Netflix’s new baking competition Is It Cake? is the perfect distraction — a delightful, mindless joy that’s far more entertaining than any show based on a stupid meme has a right to be. Its premise is simple: competitors must bake a hyper-realistic cake that looks like a decidedly non-cake everyday object and try to fool the panel of judges, who attempt to pick out the cake from a collection of identical decoy objects. If the judges spot the cake, the baker is eliminated, but if they can’t pick it out from the lineup, they have a chance to move on and win a cash prize. The winning baker from each episode also has an opportunity to win more money by participating in that week’s “Cake or Cash?” round, where they have to correctly identify which of the two containers of prize money (or dough, if you will) in front of them is actually cake in order to take home an additional $5000.
It’s an incredibly silly concept for a TV show, but like cake itself, it’s surprisingly addictive. Having binged the season’s eight episodes over the weekend, I now consider myself to be the world’s foremost expert in determining when an item is secretly cake. (If Netflix ever decides to make a spinoff competition where regular people who can’t bake just stand around and pick the cake out of a lineup, they know where to find me.) Sometimes, if the item they’re trying to replicate is made of metal or some other similarly shiny substance, the cake stands out as too matte-looking. Other times, as with the fast-food challenge where bakers had to make cakes that looked like burgers, tacos or greasy breakfast sandwiches, the cakes were too perfect-looking. In some cases, particularly when fabric is involved, the texture is a dead giveaway.
That’s not to say that the cakes on the show aren’t incredible works of art. They’re all genuinely amazing, the results of bakers who are experts in their field being given a full eight hours to work, and we at home have the luxury of close-up shots that make it easier to nitpick. The judges on Is It Cake? must view them along with the decoys from 10 feet away, and they only have 20 seconds to decide which one’s cake. (In the event of a tie, the judges are allowed to inspect the cakes at close range to see all the tiny details and taste them so they can factor in flavor as well. For all the fondant and modeling chocolate and other structural elements at play, at the end of the day, these cakes still have to taste good.) At a time when so many food competition shows are inexplicably embracing amateurism and reveling in Nailed It! -esque disasters, Is It Cake? celebrates artistry and talent by giving its contestants the time and space to show off their impressive skill. It’s deeply satisfying to correctly identify the cake, but it’s also just an absolute joy to watch a bunch of incredibly talented people get the opportunity to show off how excellent they are at their very niche craft.
Outside of the primary challenge of making a cake look like something that is not cake, there’s also a surprising amount of strategy at play on Is It Cake? that makes for compelling viewing. Bakers are allowed to select their four decoy objects from a larger group. Does it behoove them to choose items that look nearly identical, or should they try to throw the judges off their scent by mixing in an object that looks slightly different from the others? They’re also allowed to manipulate the decoys with whatever they have on hand. In the first episode, one baker wins after he wisely sprinkled some of the fake tomatoes he had made for his taco-shaped cake on top of one of the real decoy tacos, causing the judges to incorrectly guess that one was the cake. Is it fair? Probably not. But it is cake.
Is It Cake? is, by and large, an extremely self-aware show. Host Mikey Day is constantly cracking jokes about what a weird concept it is or rolling his eyes at obscure baking terms, and at one point, one contestant tells the camera, “There are people saving lives, and I am making cake look like other things.” But despite that, the show goes out of its way to celebrate each baker’s story, and it’s never dismissive of their obvious talent. And while the bakers are technically competing against each other, they’re all refreshingly supportive of one another, yelling out compliments and encouragement from the sidelines and even offering advice at times. As awestruck as we are by their creations, it’s clear that they’re all equally impressed by each other. They all seem genuinely thrilled to be baking alongside one another, and while there is technically money on the line, the grand prize just feels like the icing on the cake. (I’m sorry, you knew that pun was coming eventually.)
There’s a war going on, and there are, of course, people saving lives, so in the grand scheme of things, a goofy show about “making cake look like other things” is a trivial pleasure. “Is it cake?” isn’t exactly one of life’s great questions. But not every show needs to be groundbreaking or important. Especially in times like these, there’s something extremely soothing about being able to just zone out and allow ourselves to be entertained. Is It Cake? understands its purpose perfectly. We all deserve a treat once in a while, and sometimes that treat comes in the form of a comedian taking a machete to a series of objects to determine whether or not they’re actually a baked good.
Season 1 of Is It Cake? is currently streaming on Netflix.
This article was featured in the InsideHook newsletter. Sign up now.