Discover more from The Drugs Don't Work Anymore
Do we all suck or is it just Netflix?
we are binging embarrassment
I was not sleeping very much in March of 2022. I lived at the whim of my two-month-old son, who could only fall asleep if I was rocking him and so I spent long night-hours wandering through the house like a burned-out ghost, carrying my baby. Walking, I found, was easier than trying to hold him and rock him to sleep. And on this one particular night, I turned on Netflix and stumbled upon perhaps the most Netflix-y show of 2022. A gem entitled Is It Cake?
In case you are unfamiliar, Is It Cake is a game show in which competing chefs make cakes that look like other things (a conch shell, a rubber duck, a red solo cup) and then Mikey Day (one of those interchangeable white guys from Saturday Night Live) comes on stage, hollers IS IT CAKE? and then he takes a big knife (or once, a samurai sword) and slices into the potential cake. There’s some sort of prize and backstories for each chef but really the whole series is built around the presentation of that one question — is it cake?
There are eight episodes of Is It Cake and through that night, with my volatile infant in my arms, I watched all of them. Or, I didn’t actually watch the full episodes — I skipped to the satisfying conclusions. But I watched all of those. I saw Mikey Day slice into dozens of potential cakes. And then I hated myself a little bit the next day when I was dead-tired because I’d spent two hours in the middle of the night watching Is It Cake.
I can say a lot of things about Is It Cake but I’m driving at a larger point here.1 And so I’d just like to take a step back, and ask one of my favorite questions — how is this going to look in history? For four entire days in mid-March of 2022, Is It Cake was the top show on Netflix. In the United States, Is It Cake spent twenty-three days on the Netflix Top Ten list. In thirty years, how are we going to explain ourselves?
The truth is, we were all coming out of a really weird place in the pandemic and Netflix took advantage of our vulnerability. We were on our computers all day and we were watching these weird, satisfying videos of people cutting into cakes that didn’t look like cakes. Netflix noticed that and they jumped on it. They had an algorithm write a few jokes for Mikey Day and America watched it for twenty-three days. Oh, and by the way, Is It Cake has been renewed — it will return (and probably briefly lead the Top Ten list) in 2023.
Nobody is arguing that Is It Cake is quality television. But there’s a growing perception that, at Netflix, they don’t care about quality television. That they bow only before the algorithm. And that perception is becoming pervasive in Hollywood — just last year, it was parodied here in South Park and here in Bill Hader’s Barry. In a New Yorker profile this week, Netflix’s global head of television mused “What is quality? What is good versus not? That’s all subjective.”
The Drugs Don't Work Anymore is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
It turns out that Netflix is not in the business of creating quality television. They’re in the business of creating content (this is a complaint you hear constantly among writers in Hollywood). And Netflix is in the business of creating content because they have no incentive to create quality television in the United States. They have reached market saturation. Everybody in the United States who is potentially going to sign up for a Netflix subscription already has a Netflix subscription. Their domestic subscriber base hasn’t grown in three years. And it’s not going to grow. That’s why they aren’t breaking any new ground. That’s why they’ve just introduced ads into their domestic programming — because they are no longer the disrupters in town. They are the company and the company needs more money and more money is not coming from new domestic subscribers. That’s why they’re putting so much energy into foreign markets.
Netflix has got all the American asses-in-seats that they’re ever going to get. They just need to keep them there. That’s why they’re pumping out content like Too Hot to Handle and Dahmer and Is It Cake.2 Think about those shows, consider their nature — hot people hooking-up, serial killers up-close and cake. These are the same old shows for the same old subscribers.
More and more frequently, you hear this griping that Netflix is done trying to reach new subscribers in America. That they are not experimenting, they are saying nothing new. I mean, did anybody in America really purchase a Netflix subscription because they wanted to watch Wednesday? I have a hard time believing that any substantial number of people did. The people who watched Wednesday were already on Netflix because Wednesday is the same as Netflix’s other dark-adolescent detective dramas — i.e. Riverdale and Stranger Things.
And I know I’m going hard on them but I like Netflix. I like what they did. They came into an industry and shook it up. And that’s exciting. That’s the American dream, baby. And really, I shouldn’t go so hard on them. Because this whole thing isn’t Netflix’s fault. A lot of it is on us — the viewers. We’re the ones who put all that empty-headed content at the top of Netflix’s all-important Top Ten list. Do you know Dahmer spent three weeks as the #1 show on Netflix? What the fuck is wrong with us?
I guess, maybe, we just want cake.
I would love to see a brain scan of somebody watching Is It Cake. I wonder if, just when Mikey Day slips that knife into the cake, we get a dopamine dump. I wonder if your brain’s activity in that moment is similar to your brain’s activity as you win a level of Super Mario. If it’s the same reaction.
I’d also like to note the paradox of Is It Cake — you’re invested into the backstories of the chefs and so you want them to fool the judges. You’re a bit pleased when you watch Mikey Day cut into a potential cake but no — it actually is a conch shell! The chefs have fooled the judges. But then again, at the same time, it’s so satisfying when it is cake.
Mikey Day seems really funny and cool about Is It Cake.
This whole question-in-the-form-of-a-metaphor over whether the popularity of Is It Cake is emblematic of the larger problem of an aggressive mathematical ideology at Netflix reminds me of this (kind of cake) quote from Notes from Underground “what can be expected of man since he is a being endowed with strange qualities? Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element … he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself — as though that were so necessary — that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar.”
This moment of crisis at Netflix reminds me of that passage in Grapes of Wrath when the company man is describing economics to the farmer, “A bank or a company … those creatures don’t breathe air, don’t eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die the way you die without air .. the bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”