June 5, 2009

Cake Boss
by Dale Peck

Cake Boss is the worst reality show of the summer.

I apologize for the abruptness of this declaration, its lack of nuance, of any meaning besides the intuitive; but as I made my way through the extant episodes of Cake Boss during the past few days I was unable to come up with any other starting point for a consideration of its accomplishment. Or, more accurately, every other starting point that I tried felt disingenuous, nothing more than a way of setting Cake Boss up in order to knock it down. One of those starting points was this: “Cake Boss is a lot of things, but it is does not make your eyes bleed to watch it.” This was an attempt at charity, and though I still think that it’s true enough, I don’t think that it matters; at any rate, its lack of eye violence does not make up for the badness of the rest of it. Another attempt: “In its breakthrough episode, Cake Boss evinces a troubling fascination with acting annoying that is partially explained in the latest episode, a so-called ‘cooking show with digressions.'” Again, the observation strikes me as correct. The problem here was in assuming that what most viewers think of as the subject of a show has any role in Cake Boss beyond giving its ridiculous mediocrity something to coat, the way loose flour will dust itself over the nearest thing at hand, be it cake, coat, or cat.

Yet another false start: “Cake Boss is the worst of TLC’s very bad reality shows.” Here the first mistake was in focusing on the show itself, which bears the same relationship to the network’s career as its subject does to its aesthetic: the former come across as little more than a prop for the latter, incidental, interchangeable. Moreover, Table for 12, another recent popular show – despite the proposition put forth by a vocal minority: that Table For 12 is TLC’s best show – is, in fact, even worse than Cake Boss; but “Cake Boss is the second worst of TLC’s very bad shows” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Stop reading here if you are looking for a calm dissection of the work on display in Cake Boss. At this point, the attempt to make the cakes edible is about the only wise decision that I am willing to give the show credit for. The plain truth is that I have looked at cake after cake on Cake Boss and the cakes remain as meaningless to me as the varieties of kimchi that litter the tables of a local Korean restaurant. Actually, the comparison is not particularly apt, because I know that the kimchi means something, but I am not convinced that Cake Boss is about anything at all. In fact, it is only when I consider Cake Boss stripped of any pretense to content that I can ascribe it a measure of objecthood – not as the comical, psychological gastronomy that it purports to be, but rather as the latest in what I have come to regard as a series of imitations or echoes of reality’s more talented, or at any rate more authentically individual, peers.

Seen in this light, Cake Boss is TLC’s attempt at Ace Of Cakes, and I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant TLC’s version of Fear Factor, and Jon and Kate Plus 8 its take on Michael Apted’s Up, and Trading Spaces and the other home shows a pastiche of various reality programs which aired on the BBC in the first years of this century, the period of choice for the American reality television programmers of the of the pre-Obama era. No doubt TLC is even now at work on a sprawling “inspirational television show” in the manner of The Secret; and given their rate of output – three new shows this summer – we can probably expect to see it on our screens by the end of August, just in time for school to start.

Together these shows amount not so much to an oeuvre as to a brand, one whose success, though fascinating, is inexplicable to me. In fact, I have to confess that I consider myself unequal to the task of analyzing TLC’s reality shows.  Their faults strike me as uniform and self-evident and none of them are complex enough for a sustained analysis. My gut feeling is that if you honestly do not believe that this is bad television, then you are a part of the problem. When I finished Cake Boss I painted “Dumb! Dumb! So Dumb!” on my television screen in chocolate frosting and considered my job done. Like most of TLC’s shows, it is middle-brow, undramatic, derivative, bathetic. Their much-touted compassion strikes me as false; their highly polished aesthetic – “clean” and “shiny” are the tags that you see most often – comes only at the expense of authenticity, which is to say, of truth.

As TLC’s brand has progressed, its shows have striven to be more mythic and more postmodern and more real all at the same time; so it is perhaps not surprising that its latest endeavor is a work of hagiography masking itself as self-lacerating autobiography. Cake Boss asks us to consider its subject – the aforementioned Buddy Valastro, a.k.a. Cake Boss – as a postmodern tragic hero, ironic as well as iconic, America’s Battered Inner Child-cum-Messianic Cake Baker. Every scene practically cries out: love me despite the fact that I’m incredibly annoying.

Well, I don’t. Perhaps this denotes a failure of empathy on my part, or an indication that I am not the intended audience for TLC’s shows. But as I puzzled my way through this and the rest of their summer schedule, I found myself looking not for the place in their execution or conception where they went wrong, but rather for something even prior and more primary: the wrong turn in our culture that led to TLC’s status as one of the popular networks of its – okay, our – generation. In my view, the wrong turn starts around the time Ty Pennington left Trading Spaces for Extreme Home Makeover and echoes all the way through Little People, Big World’s ponderously self-important rendering of Matt Roloff’s trip to Iraq. Cake Boss’s badness is a little less inexplicable if you look at it as the lowest common denominator of a generation of television shows – and viewers: they, too, bear some responsibility for the condition of the form – who have long since forgotten what the reality and postreality assaults on authenticity were actually about, and as such have lost the ability to tell the difference between ambiguity and inscrutability, ambition and bombast; of shows who are taken at face value when they are being ironic and who are deemed ironic when they are telling it straight – assuming, of course, that they themselves know the difference. Assuming, I should add, that they actually have a subject.

Cake Boss’s style has been described as “a more natural albeit slightly more hysterical kind of cake baking show.” “Cake baking show,” of course, refers to the Food Network’s Ace of Cakes, but the imprecision is appropos with regard to the show’s half-thought-out rhetoric: the buzzwords here are “fondant” (pronounced fon-dahnt) and “hysterical,” the rest are approximations, filler. “I just did it,” Valastro, the cake boss, shouted into the camera while covering a with fon-dahnt. “I just made this really big cake shaped like a urinal, with butterscotch piss and everything. And I suddenly realized that it was okay for me to make these big, ridiculous ass cakes and that people would still eat the cakes and many people would be really excited by them.” The segue is revealing: Valastro’s criterion for his cakes is not that they be expressive but that they be “okay,” that “people would still eat the cakes” and “be really excited by them.” As with the cakes themselves, what comes through here is Valastro’s urgent, indeed “hysterical” desire to be heard, which he often expresses by shouting as well as making cakes. In its defense, Valastro’s audience is surely not the first to be “excited” by the “creative” structures of the cakes he holds in his hands.

And now I’ll tell you my truth: I went into this review thinking that TLC was a faker, a poser. Shooting Cake Boss off its cake stand, I thought, would be easier than shooting fish in a barrel. But whatever else it is, TLC is the genuine article. A producer of one terrible show after another, but a producer nonetheless. If you want to know the difference between a real reality producer and all those wannabes who punish us with their commercials and mobsiodes, it’s this: the real producer is incapable of seeing the world through anything but the prism of scene and talking head, which renders that world as falsely as chronology renders the progress of time. The reality producer understands that character is just a by-product of these two forces – that what we think of as ourselves is nothing more than an assortment of images acted upon by internal and external stimuli – and in some ways it is the urgent need to prove this hypothesis, to assert at least the possibility of a completely televisual experience, that drives him to make reality television. It’s true, it’s true, what you have always suspected is true: it’s ourselves we blame, ourselves we’re trying to save. Not the Cake Boss.

All of which may be just a long way of saying that I hate the episodes I’ve watched of Cake Boss, but there is always a moment in each one of them when I get mad at myself for hating them.

And then, alas, the moment passes.