Musgo has been around the Reality TV block a time or two. I grew up a fan of the Game Show genre which fell under the Reality TV umbrella with the advent of competition shows like Survivor, Big Brother, and The Amazing Race. My earliest exposure to the genre was the hidden-camera gem, Candid Camera which paved the way for the documentary style shows that dominate Reality TV as we know it today. The genre is subdivided into shows that follow famous people - The Osbournes, The Simple Life and a bevy of shows seemingly about Hugh Hefner's girlfriends. And there's the shows that follow everyday people doing their jobs. The genre, if not started by, is dominated by COPS which has been showing us different policemen doing their jobs for over 20 years. The most current craze is to show people with interesting or unique jobs. Shows like The Deadliest Catch and Miami Ink have set the bar for these shows.
When I think of the current trend of Reality TV - two networks come to mind, A&E and TLC. The A&E Network follows Dog The Bounty Hunter, Billy The Exterminator and The First 48 (which follows multiple homicide detectives). It's TLC that has made the biggest commitment to this style of TV - once known as The Learning Channel, now they are the home to shows about police women, little people (Little People, Big World; Our LIttle Life), big families (Jon & Kate Plus 8, 19 Kids and Counting), inked-up folks (Miami Ink, LA Ink) and now people who like sweets (Little Chocolatiers, Cake Boss).
Cake Boss premiered just over a year ago but in a world of "strike while it's hot", I'm reviewing the latest DVD release of Season Two just as Season Three is premiering on the network over the Memorial Day weekend. The second season which started in October 2009 ended in February 2010 with 17 episodes. The DVD release is spread over two discs with very little in the way of extras. My little darling daughter has been quite a fan of the show but other than brief glimpses, this was my first exposure to Carlo's Bake Shop.
Buddy Valastro is the "Cake Boss" of the title. He runs Carlo's Bake Shop in Hoboken, New Jersey with his mother, his four older sisters, and their husbands. The conceit of the Jersey accent and portrayal of the family on the DVD cover and beginning of each episode is that of a Mob family with Buddy as "The Boss". Their popularity also probably helped by other Jersey notables Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives Of New Jersey. When it comes down to pursuing this line in the actual episodes - the conceit falls apart. The worst parts of any episode are the forced "acting" we see when Buddy interacts with his sisters. These scenes feel scripted and forced. When the ladies change the voice recording in "Robots . . ." or when they change his painting plans in "Painters . . ." it's all painful and predictable.
Any channel that produces similar shows will develop a house style. NBC has it with The Biggest Loser and The Apprentice - both different style shows that are edited for storytelling very similarly. Same goes for TLC where a show like LA Ink about tattoo artists in Los Angeles is edited in a similar way to Cake Boss on the East Coast. In an average episode (and let me tell you they all run almost exactly the same pattern) Buddy will usually have to make two cakes. One will be a larger project for a company or charity. The other will be a smaller piece for an individual. At the beginning, Buddy will travel some place like a battleship ("A Battleship, Ballet and Burning") and after meeting the people will say "I have to make this cake. . .", Buddy will come up with the concept for the cakes and his crew will start on the process. At some point, they will encounter a problem and Buddy will chime in with "I don't know how we're going to get this cake done in time." But they will and it will be delivered over the end credits as everyone has a grand time. In between making the cakes, the secondary plot will usually revolve around Buddy making a bet or getting involved in a challenge.
Buddy is best as the lovable loser. I'm not sure that's how he likes to see himself portrayed in the show but when he's out playing golf in "Golf Greens and Gravity" or getting nagged by his sister over her birthday cake in "Apple, Arguments and Animal Prints", it's always fun to see Buddy as a Rodney Dangerfield persona. He talks big but rarely delivers and that's what's lovable about him. It's easy to separate out these boasts from the cake making. It's that dichotomy that can make the show more appealing - here's a guy with nagging sisters who thinks he's talented at everything but really he's just better than everyone at making cakes.
There are two comparative shows that put Cake Boss into perspective. The first and most obvious is Ace Of Cakes. The Food Network show focusing on Duff Goldman's bakery in Baltimore has been on for eight seasons since 2006. The basic structure is similar - constructing cakes and delivering crazy styles and sized cakes for huge clients like Radio City Music Hall or the cast of Lost. The Ace Of Cakes crew concentrates their 30-minute show more on the actual construction of the cake and less on the personalities behind the cake. In some ways that caters much more to the Food Network fan that may want to know more about the cake itself. Plus the cakes on Ace Of Cakes seem to have pushed the arms race a little more as each show tries to top the other for sizes of cakes.
The other show I'm more familiar with is TLC's LA Ink. In three seasons of the tattoo shop show, the producers have found just the right balance. Kat Von D is like the Buddy of her High Voltage Tattoo shop - she runs a family business with other artists helping out in her shop. There's a blend of ongoing soap opera-ish tales of the shop managers, Kat's boyfriends, other businesses, and drama from the lives of the other artists. In between these are the tattoos. Like the two-three cakes that Buddy is going to make per 30-minute episode, there are five-six tattoos per episode on LA Ink. The tattoos are really the effort of one artist whereas the cakes are a group effort. Buddy is the idea man but he can't make each of these cakes without the help of his team. The hour-long format for LA Ink allows time to tell interesting backstories behind each tattoo - these are the stories that make the viewer invested in the person getting the tattoo. The 30-minute format for Cake Boss doesn't allow that same freedom. I'd like more time to get to know these charities or the stories of the people buying cakes for their weddings and birthdays.
Cake Boss is a fun ride. I loved the cakes for the Hell's Angels in "Motorcylces . . ." and the Sesame Street cake and the beautiful cake for Disney Work in "Castles, Cannolis and Cartoon Characters". But like his cakes, the show can be all sweets and little substance. Buddy and TLC should learn from other shows in the Reality genre that it's the side stories that hook the viewers. It's the lives of other people that come through Buddy's life that fascinate us as much as his talents at making the cakes. That's what The Biggest Loser learned long ago - once you've watched someone lose weight over 16 weeks - it's hard to make it interesting the next season. Unless you invest the viewer in the backstories. The show might benefit from a longer format or from focusing in on the stories that happen outside of his family. Buddy is our guy, and we love him immediately - now give us something to sink our teeth into.
The DVD contains a few short pieces called "Sauce Boss". Buddy is our guide as he shows the viewer step by step how to make seven different Italian dishes. While the "Linguine w/ Giant Shrimp" and the "Mushroom Risotto" look tasty, I really was hoping for a peek behind the scenes at some of the wonderful cakes. I don't feel like some of them really got featured near enough - how about a still gallery to really see them.
Musgo will return to the Reality jungle undaunted by the size and scope of the genre. The Cake Boss enters a third season with plenty still to prove, more stories to tell and many more cakes to bake.
Article first published as DVD Review: Cake Boss - Season 2 on Blogcritics.