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Sweet, Sweet Existentialism

A flaky pastry reflects on the class divide and the meaning of life

A croissant hunches over on a chaise lounge, his black beret neatly angled on top of his flaky brown head. He has large eyes and eyebrows that wilt with malaise, even as his thick mustache maintains its curls. He is like a sad, French Monsieur Potato Head, and he’s come to seek advice from his therapist about an existential crisis.

“I have the sneaking suspicion that there is absolutely no purpose to my life, and it makes me feel completely empty inside,” the croissant says.

“You know that you’re a regular croissant. You have no fillings,” his therapist says, missing the croissant’s cry for help that he has no feelings. The therapist, who is a daifuku (a Japanese rice cake stuffed with sweet paste) insensitively goes on to list the many fillings he could contain, while the croissant continues on his path of gloomy introspection.

Although Croissant’s willingness to confront these issues may appear to be an impulse toward justice, it is more a search for truth and meaning.

This is Croissant Man, the Amazon Prime web series made with all live action puppets, that follows a croissant, known only as “Croissant,” as he navigates a harsh world divided between upper-class pastries and lower-class junk food (or “Junks”). Episodes are about six minutes each, and with nine episodes in the first season, it’s easy to watch the entire show in one sitting. Like getting a YouTube link from a friend who instructs, “just watch,” the show offers a bizarre and hilarious world you never thought would or should exist.

Croissant Man was picked up by Amazon in 2015. A few months later it won the award for Best Editor at the New York Television Festival and Best Cinematography at Brooklyn Webfest. Slow rolling at first, the show is now featured on Comedy Central Saturday Morning(ish) Cartoons, is the subject of at least one weird meme (something about how a flexing muscular man looks like a croissant) and has even inspired a dissertation. But the true momentum right now is coming from fans who are agitating for another season. The show seems of the moment, when feelings of helplessness, class disparity, and the struggle to make a change occupy so many. “The story of a depressed croissant,” writes IMDb about the show. And who isn’t depressed right now? 

“The deeper down you go into yourself, the more you will feel the significance even of insignificance (not in a finite but in an infinite sense) because it is posited by you,” Søren Kierkegaard, considered to be the first existentialist philosopher, wrote in his first published book, Either/Or. He believed humans are responsible for creating their own meaning in life. So does the universe in Croissant Man. The idea that humans don’t inherit a sense of purpose merely by existing, is a central tenet of existentialism, and the position that Kierkegaard believed people found themselves in naturally, one of “infinite insignificance.”

As the academic Robert Solomon writes in From Hegel to Existentialism, the “existentialist attitude begins with a disoriented individual facing a confused world she cannot accept.” Not unlike the protagonist in Croissant Man, who decides to confront his own sense of meaninglessness by investigating an incident of abuse against a member of the lower-class Junks. Although Croissant’s willingness to confront these issues may appear to be an impulse toward justice, like a true existentialist, it is more a search for truth and meaning. He’s not compelled to act out of an instinct for righteousness. His attention tends to face inward, even a bit narcissistically so.

The show follows a cast of desserts (including cookies, macaroons, and a Pop Tart) that struggle to seek personal fulfillment in an unforgiving reality. Those that appear most content either possess great, if shallow, self-knowledge (like the cheerful Peanut who knows she likes going out dancing) or employ a sort of existentialist mind trick by convincing themselves they’re happy. When Croissant asks his friend, Biscotti, how he maintains his happiness, Biscotti says, “I’m not sad because I believe I don’t want to be sad.” But those who can’t master these mind states end up suffering. The donut who feels insecure that the upper-class Croissant and Biscotti will steal his girlfriend, Peanut, isn’t able to enjoy his usual party-going. Instead, he’s preoccupied with fear.

Having non-human characters deal with human issues is also a clever way to give viewers some contemplative distance, letting them see the absurdity of the human condition in its own bare light. The show does not have to fabricate a sense of absurdity to convey the deep roots of its characters’ anxieties. Watching a stiff donut tell his girlfriend that he feels fat and vulnerable in the presence of a croissant, without any bit of irony or punniness, is bizarre enough to enthrall viewers.

Although Croissant considers Biscotti’s advice to simply imagine himself into greater fulfillment—a super simplistic existentialist solution—the actual tactics he uses are more complex and practical. Croissant uses stories, both ones he tells himself and ones he consumes voyeuristically, to fill the void in his life.

Croissant’s go-to activity for cheering himself up is watching his favorite soap opera, Belle Fromage, about sappy romances between different cheeses. Croissant spends most of his days moping alone in his apartment, but whenever Belle Fromage comes on his mood shifts drastically, and for a while he’s content. He stares gleefully at the TV, having forgotten his miseries entirely. Later in the series, when the sad Donut visits Croissant in search of something to fill the “hole” inside him, Croissant prescribes a binge-watching marathon of every episode of Belle Fromage. Croissant tells Donut that watching the show is the only time he’s not afraid of the nameless fear inside himself, which, he adds, is all the more terrifying because he can’t identify it. For the time being, the TV quells both of their dread. But because binge watching doesn’t force either of them to change their mindset, it only serves as an existential Band-Aid. As soon as the show ends, their gloom returns. Their solution? Drown everything out with another food-based soap opera, appropriately titled “Melon Cauli.”

Croissant’s “existential crisis” is “a direct metaphor for [the creator’s] generation trying to find their place in the intangible world of the information age.”

The possibility that viewers of Croissant Man might be mirroring Croissant’s tactics of using bingeable entertainment to relieve themselves of their own insecurities is not lost on the show’s creator, Tulica Singh. On the Kickstarter Singh launched to crowdfund the show, she writes that Croissant’s “existential crisis” is “a direct metaphor for mistakenly typecast superficial people of [her] generation trying to find their place in the intangible world of the information age.” For young people, merely having the digitized world at their fingertips doesn’t give them all the right keys to self-knowledge and acceptance. Sometimes it can induce overwhelming anxiety. However, that network can also be used to find comforting distractions from itself in the form of entertainment. Or, as Singh describes Croissant Man, “an existential snack.”

Besides watching TV, Croissant tries to treat his sorrow by creating his own exciting stories to live out. After spying an alluring pain au chocolat, Croissant is struck with the idea of a life in which they’re lovers, and becomes nervously preoccupied with her, hoping to make a connection. At the same time, Croissant pursues an alternate life path by becoming a detective at the local police station, then attempting to solve a domestic abuse incident between Donut and Peanut. During these adventures, Croissant’s fears stop weighing him down and he’s able to enjoy life, although not exactly freely. The narratives he traps himself inside temporarily feed his gnawing emptiness, but they don’t resolve it. Only after Croissant plays out his fantasies to their ends and finds himself looking inward again does he realize that he will only gain long-lasting happiness and fulfillment by doing more with his daily life. If he’s unhappy sitting at home every day, he should find a more fulfilling occupation or employment that he can sustain over years to come, rather than chasing fantasies.

On its face a crowdfunded web series starring puppets seems doomed to failure. It’s an idea closer to a parody of the worst kind of overindulged, overly ambitious, and nonsensical web series. But Croissant Man manages to succeed without losing its humor or intellectual edge. It’s also more enlightening (or at least entertaining) than most of what the algorithms deliver to distract us from ourselves.