With ‘Cake’ Season 5 Underway, It’s Time to Succumb to its Rewarding Surprises

Diving into the FXX shorts collection sight unseen is one of TV's great unpredictable joys, but here are some ideal starting points.
CAKE -- Episode 1 (Airs Thursday, July 23, 10:00 PM ET/PT on FXX) -- "Odeon" -- Jonathan Djob Nkondo. CR: FXX

[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]

Where to Watch ‘Cake’: Hulu, or catch the currently airing Season 5 on FXX

One of the best jokes in the entire run of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is in the “Game of Games” episode. Learning that his next challenge is to eat a cake, Frank says “That sounds good.” Charlie responds, “It’s not. You have to eat the *ingredients* of a cake.”

Watching the FXX shortform collection “Cake” is enough to make you wonder if that’s not such a bad thing after all. There are so few shows on TV where you hit play on an episode with very little preparation for what’s about to happen. Is there a general artistic vibe and sense of humor that “Cake” often capitalizes on? Sure, but there’s also an immense sense of freedom to subvert those expectations that’s invigorating to watch.

There’s something admirable to the whole concept, which has stayed as consistent as it can up through its now-airing Season 5. Inherently, there are going to be things in each half-hour block that won’t work for every viewer. But given that none of these episodes are locked into any format, “Cake” episodes can be anything: hand-drawn abstract reinterpretations of casual conversations, short films about the pitfalls of living through a modern world, or a dark animated comedy about Middle Ages angst. Anything is fair game.

At the risk of continuing to describe something that’s best experienced firsthand, here are a few snippets that make the case for taking the plunge:

The great joy of watching a full “Cake” episode is experiencing the smaller segments that whisk through your consciousness right before you can register them. One great example: Season 2’s use of a portion of mesmerizing fluid body flow transformation from Mathieu Labaye’s “Orgesticulanismus.” (See also: Michelle Brand’s stellar “Any Instant Whatever.”

Amid the bevy of recurring animated series that make up some of the most memorable “Cake” filling, “Dicktown” may well be the richest. John Hodgman and David Rees’ sharp spin on a boy detective all grown up and living in his North Carolina hometown is effortlessly entertaining. (And, of course it has ocelots.)

If “Cake” is about building perceptions and tweaking them at every turn, then there’s no better standard bearer for the show than Jonathan Djob Nkondo, whose “Odeon” series keeps finding new ways to hypnotize. “Odeon” can confront as easily as it can transport, and few artists can cut through to the heart of a story on such a quick and gorgeous path.

Lightly serialized live-action shorts have been a “Cake” tentpole, and one of the most memorable series-within-a-series is this parade of absurdities in the life of one Brooklynite just trying to find fulfillment. Mamoudou Athie stars as Jerome (a performance extremely worthy of his Emmy nomination) in this series from Alex Karpovsky and Teddy Blanks (who spoke with us about what went into making Jerome’s dreams a reality).

And between “Two Pink Doors” and the revival of his classic Dr. Brown persona, Phil Burgers is a perfect match for “Cake.” Occupying each end of the dark-whimsical spectrum, this is modern clowning at its finest, peppered with a dash of pitch-black humor and all presented in gloriously choreographed single takes.

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