Recently, my sister, brother-in-law and I stopped in Hoboken, N.J., for lunch on our way to New York City. Hoboken is famous for Frank Sinatra and, thanks to reality TV, the “Cake Boss,” otherwise known as Buddy Valastro, owner of Carlo’s Bakery. For five seasons on TLC, Buddy and his crew have created some impressive confections. Want a replica of the space shuttle with working engines in cake form? Done. Need a cake in the shape and size of an actual car or person? Not a problem. Having watched the show, we couldn’t pass up the chance to wander down the street after lunch and see where the cake magic happens. Buddy wasn’t there, but a life-size cardboard version of him was. It was Cardboard Cake Boss, and tourists lined up to snap a photo. I lined up for some cake.
We have celebrity chefs, so why not a celebrity baker? On “Cake Boss,” Buddy has a big personality to go along with his big cakes. He is loud, enthusiastic and passionate about his work. You can watch “Cake Boss” as a fan of Buddy or a fan of the cakes, but you can’t watch without getting a big dose of family along with the fondant. The Carlo of Carlo’s Bakery is Buddy’s late father. His mother and sisters man the counters (at least for the TV show) and regular viewers will have seen snapshots of a young Buddy learning the trade. On the “Cake Boss” website, fans can send their thoughts to Buddy’s “Mama,” Mary, who is battling ALS.
Buddy’s family, including cousins Anthony and Frankie and sister Lisa, pop up on his latest reality TV series, “Next Great Baker.” Now in its third season, the show features 13 bakers who Buddy puts through a series of challenges. The winner gets $100,000, a spread in Redbook magazine and an internship at Carlo’s.
On the show, there’s plenty of sentimentality to go along with the sugar. While Buddy uses product placement as an opportunity to stroll down memory lane, a challenge featuring Oreo cookies has him reminiscing about his favorite childhood snack which just happens to be Oreos, the contestants are equally nostalgic. One tells us she discovered her love of baking because she wanted to be a great mom and make good cakes for her kids’ birthday parties. Another says baking was a way to cope with bullying. For everyone, baking for Buddy is a dream come true.
The cakes on the other hand, look less like the fulfillment of a dream and more like wood shop with icing. Extreme cake construction requires inedible support to go with the flour and sugar. Life size people made out of cake don’t stand-up without a few two by fours. All this leads me to wonder, are these cakes actually tasty? No one, including Buddy, ever seems to eat the extreme cakes created during the elimination challenges.
Page 2 of 2 - Buddy tries to be a tough guy when he should be a mentor but it's not a role he plays well. The harshest he gets is when he announces that the eliminated contestant will be leaving in a box truck. The rest of the time, he’s pretty boring. His judging comments during the pre-elimination challenge (where he does taste test) include one of the following phrases: “I like this.” “I like it.” “This is good.” “This is a good one.” He might say he doesn’t “get” a “flavor profile” but that’s as culinary as he’s willing to take things. But Buddy isn’t famous for his culinary critiques. He’s the guy who yells “It’s go time!” and pronounces Manhattan like: Man. Hat. In.
He’s also the guy who gets stressed about making amazing looking cakes, pranks his employees, fights with his family and loves his mama. All are reasons to watch “Cake Boss” and skip “Next Great Baker.” It’s much better to watch this boss work.
“Next Great Baker” is on Monday at 9 p.m. EDT on TLC.
Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television's 'The West Wing.’” She has a PhD in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.