FXX describes its new series “Cake” as a “comedy showcase.” It’s an apt description, especially because trying to sum up the show in any more than two words is a much harder task than you might expect.
To follow the food metaphor the show’s title invites, “Cake” is the product of a number of ingredients all working together to produce a distinct flavor. To torture that metaphor further, “Cake” is something closer to a sugary casserole, an energetic mixture of disparate comedic styles that aren’t so much whipped up into batter but presented with large chunks still intact in each bite. In an entertainment world that’s increasingly supported by algorithms, “Cake” doesn’t allow viewers to get silo’ed into one headspace – and that’s the glory of the show.
Each half-hour episode throws together a cross-section of live-action and animated shorts. “Cake” makes reducing things down to either of those two categories a reductive process, and not just because some are an in-between hybrid. It’s easy to see that the animation styles that bring many of these smaller segments to life are different, but that variety is just as much about the mindset these shorts come from.
That spectrum of sensibilities is a risky prospect. Throwing so many different ideas into one TV venture is far from common practice. Most well-established anthology series turn their changing stories into variations on a theme. Even if some of these segments fall outside your viewing comfort zone, “Cake” has the added benefit of nudging audiences toward something different.
“Cake” is also one of the few current TV shows that don’t really allow for passive viewing. Color palettes change even within segments of the show that recur from episode to episode. Samantha Jayne’s “Quarter Life Poetry” shifts from lighting based solely on handheld devices to a more traditional monochrome. The changing (often psychedelic) interstitial designs focus on movement across the whole screen, which set up some of the show’s more stationary, introspective animated sections.
One of the most thrilling parts of any “Cake” episode is the end credits, where each segment gets an accounting of the work that went into creating it, regardless of its final length. It sometimes takes an army of creators to present a unified, cohesive idea. Other visions are the intricate design of a surprisingly small team. “Cake” invites you not just to watch the parade of creativity, but to think about the process that goes into stories that diverge this much.
Through it all, most — if not all — of “Cake” occupies a valuable middle ground of surreality that lets these creative visions flourish. The series standout element, Alex Karpovsky and Teddy Blanks’ “Oh Jerome, No” is an ongoing catalogue of anxieties and tiny successes and missed opportunities of the titular New Yorker (Mamoudou Athie). There’s a very specific way that Athie responds to the ups and downs of Jerome’s misadventures, but that constant push and pull between expectation and reality is what “Cake” is built on.
So as the battle for streaming supremacy escalates and platforms look for totemic properties to build viewership around, let’s hope that there’s room for shows like “Cake” that don’t conform to one easy definition or one corner of the audience. Even with a tiny slice, life’s better with more flavors.
“Cake” airs Wednesday night at 10:30 p.m. on FXX.