Well, Chipotle has proven one thing with its new four-episode web series on Hulu, Farmed and Dangerous: It doesn't know how to make a TV show. Here's the plot of the pilot: Big Bad Industrial Farming has created a way to get cows to eat petroleum pellets, and spin doctor Buck Marshall (Ray Wise, aka Twin Peaks' Leland Palmer) has to sell the idea to the American people. The only problem is a viral video of an exploding PetroPellet-ingesting cow, and it's up to Marshall's daughter, a less charismatic version of Kirsten Bell, to go after the scruffy, handsome, and incredibly dull sustainable farming crusader (named Chip, get it?) who's responsible for spreading the video in his quest to take down Big Ag.
It sounds okay on paper, but the problem is that the show is not created to focus on drama, snappy dialogue, chemistry between actors, or anything else that makes up a good television series. Farmed and Dangerous isn't hung on plot points, it's hung on talking points. It's propaganda, not entertainment.
Chipotle's stunt puts people like me in a strange position, because I fundamentally agree with the show's message. "The public has a right to know how their food is raised," Chip self-righteously informs the cartoonish Big Ag villains. Well yeah, I'll second that, just as I'll boo the sneering, cowboy-hatted bigwig Mick when he talks about the stupidity of the American consumer. (Nuance isn't exactly the show's strong suit.) And though Chipotle's few marketing attempts -- videos like last year's animated short The Scarecrow -- espouse values that the company may not entirely follow, in general the burrito dispensary is far-and-above its fast food peers: It strives to source ingredients responsibly, identifies GMOs in its products, and attempts to use at least some organic and local products.
But it's hard to shake the uncomfortable feeling that comes with watching a TV show created and distributed by a brand to promote its own products; it can't escape the taint of manipulation (a valid complaint with the Scarecrow video, too). Corporate sponsorship has been tied to television since the beginning, but something about this feels different, more devious, even if Chipotle claims it isn't.
"It's not a show about Chipotle, but rather integrates the values that are at the heart of our business," said Mark Crumpacker, chief marketing and development officer at Chipotle and an executive producer of the show, in a company statement. "The more people know about how food is raised, the more likely they will be to choose food made from better ingredients -- like the food we serve at Chipotle."
In an incredibly cynical light, the company tying itself to these values can be seen as a giant marketing gimmick. At this point, does it matter? Like General Mills announcing that Cheerios will become GMO-free because the company thinks it will make its products sell better, the very existence of this web series -- the fact that Chipotle saw fit to invest in it -- shows that the national dialogue about food is changing. Chip isn't some fringe lunatic shouting about animal rights; he's the love interest, and moral heart, of the series.
Of course, that doesn't make Farmed and Dangerous any more watchable. With so much great TV these days, brands that want to follow in Chipotle's footsteps should use this as a cautionary tale. Entertain us now, and we might just like you enough to buy a burrito later.