Much has been made over the years of the negative images of Baltimore presented in TV shows like Homicide: Life on the Street or, more recently, The Wire. The criticism is often overblown. And yet, admittedly, there is something wearying about knowing that the rest of the country views one's hometown only in terms of unsolved murders, drug busts and Richard Belzer as Detective John Munch.
To those who tire of this wasteland image of Baltimore, the city that bleeds, there is an antidote of sorts emerging from the thin, lukewarm gruel that's otherwise known as basic cable.
Its name is Duff Goldman.
Mr. Goldman, 32, is the unlikely star of what may be the Food Network's unlikeliest program, Ace of Cakes. It's a reality show with a deceptively simple premise. Each week Mr. Goldman and the staff of Charm City Cakes (a real, honest-to-goodness firm in Remington) decorate made-to-order specialty cakes. C'est tout. That's it. Excited? Have you programmed your TiVo yet?
But to say the show is about baking is like suggesting The Wire is about recorded phone conversations. The cakes Charm City creates are more art than flour, eggs, sugar or butter. In fact, you almost never see anyone baking. Instead, the decorators weld, hack, pinch and pound together edible sculptures. One week it's a bushel of crabs for Phillips Seafood, the next King Kong holding Drew, the bar mitzvah boy, or a larger-than-life rat sitting on an edible manhole cover.
Even the "wow" factor -- and oddity -- of the elaborate cakes is beside the point. In each episode, the cast of real-life characters (Charm City's are pleasingly eccentric, from obsessive executive sous chef Jeff, a former architectural model builder, to unflappable red-headed Mary Alice, who handles customer relations) must tackle a seemingly impossible challenge. By midway, the outlook looks uncertain at best. By the two-thirds mark, they are headed for all-nighters with their buckets of fondant icing and X-Acto blades wondering how their lives came down to creating a cake that exactly matches a groom's favorite Jeep.
In the final minutes, miracles happen; cakes are delivered to happy clients.
Nobody ever gets killed in Ace of Cakes. Nor is anyone scolded or humiliated or even yelled at (they're more apt to mutter at themselves). The cast isn't forced to compete in foolish tasks or stay in one house. There are no immunity idols. Nor offers of $100,000 kitchens, fashion magazine layouts or recording contracts.
What Food Network has dared to do is show the world a happy workplace. Mr. Goldman, the accidental entrepreneur, treats his staff as best friends, not employees. They, in turn, seem ready to rise to any challenge and take tremendous pride in their labors.
Now, that's a daring concept.
For the record, Tribune Co., owner of this newspaper, also owns a portion of the Food Network. (But do they share leftovers with their print cousins? Turns out, no). A Food Network spokeswoman says Ace, which has only been on for one year, is now regarded as an authentic breakout hit. It's consistently one of the network's top three shows, and more popular than anything starring the much-hyped (our description, not theirs) Emeril "Bam" Lagasse or Rachael "Queen of Quick" Ray.
Offices and other places of work are common backdrops in TV-land. But rarely have they been portrayed with greater affection or honesty. Oh, bad things sometimes happen to the good people at Charm City. You know, the usual stuff: An oil tanker cake's prow collapses under too much heavy gum paste, or a turntable cake's electric motor won't work as planned. But the crew makes repairs. Life goes on.
Mr. Goldman reports that the bakery is already attracting inquisitive tourists -- so many, they sometimes must be shooed away. Young artists are happily working, after all. The video production company is coming back next month to begin taping Season 3. As far as Baltimore's reputation goes, that's icing on the cake.