Watching Monday's debut of Chipotle's new web-based series Farmed & Dangerous, I wondered if it's possible that some of our TV and pop entertainment history has come full-circle. When many of the original advertisers for serialized dramas on 1930's radio included Lever Brothers, Proctor & Gamble, Dial and Colgate-Palmolive, "the soaps" were born. So Chipotle's notion of backing a fictional program without promoting burrito bowls in every frame, or earnestly lecturing us on the perils of "Big Ag" while humblebragging their own strides towards sustainability isn't without precedent. All product placement-related cynicism aside, it must be said that this model raises some troubling questions about creative content and editorial control, but Chipotle has been extremely transparent about their involvement in this project, so we're well aware of what we're getting into. (For further discussion of the creative issues, see Elizabeth Weiss in The New Yorker.)
That disclaimer aside, if you're interested in an appealing, accessible onramp to Big Ag 101, I think this show is worth a view (hence this recap). It has some genuinely funny moments, and I've been daydreaming about the comedic possibilities if lead character Buck Marshall showed up on The Colbert Report. (Pretty please, Stephen?)
Episode 1 : Oiling the Food Chain (Spoiler alert!)
Buck Marshall, Twitterverse star and image consultant extraordinaire at the Industrial Food Image Bureau (IFIB), has been called in to meet with his client Mick, the president of Animoil. (Their kids are dating - hmm, I wonder if that will figure into the plot!?) Mick is super psyched to introduce Buck to Petropellets, a petroleum-based feed for cattle that will eliminate the need for them to eat any grain or graze or anything biological and icky ever again. And thanks to government subsidies for oil companies, these evil geniuses will be able to make even more money! (Cue maniacal villain laugh.) This little energy-food discussion is interrupted by Buck's trilling cellphone - and here's why you really need to mind those hazard signs at work, because in this case, cellphones set off these poor Petropelleted cows and they... explode. It sounds crazy, but given that manure pits with hog waste have exploded in recent times, it actually doesn't feel that insane. Poor, poor cows.
By the time Sophia Marshall, Buck's daughter, arrives for her first day at IFIB (pronounced "I fib") there's a video of the explosion at Animoil has gone viral online. (A few clever jabs at industrial food PR consultants for not understanding the internet are hilarious, but inaccurate - witness advergaming and #AgChat.) Buck needs the video down, and now, so he wants to meet with Chip Reynolds, the video's promoter and a well-known local advocate for sustainable agriculture. However, Random Consultant exposits that Chip "hates them" and it's unlikely they'll manage to get such a meeting. (Clearly Random Consultant hasn't seen many movies or TV shows.)
Cue Sophia, who takes on this big assignment right away, pays Reynolds' Sustainable Family Farming Association a little visit and finally tracks him down at a dive bar. (What, no paperwork to do in HR on her first morning?) Poor Chip. Mr. Exposition's main purpose this episode was largely to explain what industrial ag has done to farming in the last 50 years, or talking "ancient solar energy" - that's petroleum - with Buck Marshall.
Despite the fact that Chip called Sophia out on her tactics to distract him with a blue dress and a blowout, he insists on going ahead with a lunch meeting anyway because subplots he wants to "continue the dialogue." Perhaps she's intrigued by his edgy plaid shirt and facial hair. Anyway, in a throwback to 1954, her cartoonish boyfriend would object to such a scandalous outing - at noon! On a Sunday! And he really does. Zach (Mick's son) actually shows up to threaten Chip during the meeting. It appears, for a moment, that Chip may take that video down if only as a personal favor to Sophia.
Not to worry, sustainable food fans; our hero immediately gets a call from a morning show producer asking about his viral video, setting up the next episode's action. (Hopefully future weeks will give characters besides Marshall some more compelling material.)
If I have one general criticism of this show thus far, it is that certain sections of dialogue, unfortunately the issue-based tidbits we also care a lot about at Ecocentric, weigh down the script at times. (Remember Fast Food Nation, the movie?) It feels less like a story about people and more a story about issues; I'm not on board with Chip yet. In fact, I would have been curious to see a completely straight satire that didn't include such an earnest viewpoint (Chip). Farmed and Dangerous is at its best when Buck gets to riff - his character gets to toss off zingers that impart plenty of detail revealing the lunacy of our industrial food production system. (See below.) After all, we know that's part of Chipotle's mission here.
Burning Questions after Episode 1
- Who is the Man in Black?
- When will Sophia dump Zach and persuade Buck to represent the Sustainable Family Farmers Association?
- Who has Chip been talking to at Animoil - is there a whistleblower we haven't yet met?
- Not to be outdone by Tegan & Sara's exuberant Lego Movie earworm "Everything is Awesome", Farmed & Dangerous has a catchy fauxpowerment anthem of its own with "All About Me". (Seriously. There is a music video.)
- Hey - it's that guy! Ray Wise, who's cracking us up as Buck Marshall, has been a fixture on American TV for years - whether you know him from Twin Peaks, How I Met Your Mother, 24, The West Wing or Mad Men (among many others).
The Best of Buck, Episode 1
"These people died from eating, not starving. That's progress."
"Who gives a crap about the [exploding] cow? It ruined one of my best suits. Probably did it on purpose."
"Dairy cows don't need sunlight, Chip, nor do they need cellphones."
Farmed and Dangerous is available on Hulu or Hulu Plus, with three more new episodes premiering on Mondays. (http://www.hulu.com/farmed-and-dangerous)