'Cake': TV Review

CAKE - Publicity Still 2- H 2019
Creative enough to deserve a chance.

The FXX show is an intriguing mishmash of live-action and animated shorts, with results that vary.

It only takes the briefest of glimpses at new broadcast network series — because they are always, always, so predictably familiar — to want a taste of something, anything different.

On Wednesday, FXX serves up a series meant to satisfy that yearning in Cake, dubbed both a "handcrafted assortment of bite-sized shorts" and, more ambitiously, "a diverse array of narratives from storytellers both new and established...that are equal parts thought-provoking, laugh-inducing, artistic, authentic and raw." 

The key to all of that might rest in the "thought-provoking" part even if the "laugh-inducing" part will be the easier one to pull off, given the familiarity of the sketch-show and animation vibes the show shares with offerings from Comedy Central and Adult Swim as well as series like Bojack Horseman on Netflix.

In the first episode of Cake on Wednesday (also available to FX customers through FXNow), the standout piece is called Quarter Life Poetry, starring, written and created by Samantha Jayne. (Jayne was already pretty famous before appearing here, having started Quarter Life Poetry on Instagram, then turning it into a book and adapting it for part of this series.)

That doesn't take away from its clear effectiveness, with Jayne contemplating, via her hip-hop sing-along verses, staying at home on a Friday night and then being guilted into going to a party only to find out the person who urged her has flaked — and now Jayne feels abandoned and alone, annoyed at her phone-obsessed, plan-changing generation. There's a lyrical deftness to the effort, directed by Arturo Perez. Jr., and enough of a twist ending to make you want to see other installments of Quarter Life Poetry on Cake going forward.

Many of the interstitial bits of animation and the longer ones as well — I believe those are considered full-on segments, not interstitials, based on the credits at the end — are effective at passing the half hour, even if some are more compelling or interesting than others. No doubt that will be a hallmark of a series like this that takes the shotgun approach to creative endeavors; sometimes you're going to be in the mood, sometimes not.

The second biggest segment in the first episode (the only episode sent for review, one day before its premiere) is called Oh Jerome, No, created by Alex Karpovsky (Girls) and Teddy Blanks. As with other bits on Cake, viewers are thrown into it without any background (actually a preferable way to accurately judge something) and we meet Jerome (Mamoudou Athie), who is overly sensitive. The drawback, of course, is that immediately viewers will think this is a sketch, since Cake cuts it up and intersperses it with other elements of the show (in contrast, Quarter Life Poetry runs straight through, though it's shorter). To its credit, Oh Jerome, No features enough humor to make it work sliced up, but what it really wants to be is that "thought-provoking" bit mentioned by FXX above. And it mostly succeeds on that front as well, if primarily as a momentary impression rather than something revelatory or deep.

See, Jerome is way too sensitive and goes to classes to get desensitized so that he'll be cooler and, say, less needy on first dates. He overdoes it with his hardened edge and that turns off women in this guise as well — except for Natasha Lyonne (Russian Doll) in a fun cameo. It's not much of a spoiler to say that Jerome, try as he might, just can't be an empty vessel, devoid of feelings. He cares.

Interesting micro-story? Sure. Funny? Sometimes. Original? Meh. 

But maybe that's how Cake will go each week — viewers get presented with a grab-bag of visual goodies and if they don't like one thing then something else will be right behind it. On some level this plays into people being on their screens — especially phones — for shorter amounts of time and thus (possibly?) wanting shorter bits. There's a whole company — Quibi — spending a ton of money betting on that concept.

But it's difficult to pull off. At least in a half hour like Cake, it's less about searching for just the right quick bite and more about waiting to let it roll onto your screen, with no rules about what it will look like or what it will mean. It's certainly worth checking out future episodes to see if the concept works.

Premieres Wednesday, 10:30 p.m., FXX.