Two shows debuted online in the last few days. Neither was backed by traditional television networks. Both were dominated by low lighting, behind-the-scenes scandal and digital whistleblowing. One was the second season of the Netflix original series, House of Cards. The other was Chipotle’s original series, Farmed and Dangerous, streaming on Hulu.
Farmed and Dangerous is Chipotle’s four-part half hour comedy series, focused on factory farms. Chipotle has established itself as an unconventional advertiser, with past short films centered on sustainable farming with little mention of Chipotle’s products or brand. The films have been widely considered a success: in 2013, an animated film featuring Fiona Apple singing a cover of “Pure Imagination” racked up over 12 million views.
Farmed and Dangerous represents the extension of these efforts to satiric television. The show follows a family farming advocate taking on factory farming when a cow explodes after being fed petroleum. Chipotle’s anti-factory farming, pro-sustainability message is the same. However, it doesn’t translate as well to the small screen.
The first episode of Farmed and Dangerous reveals the difficulties of creating a comedy with a moral message without seeming heavy handed. While television shows such as House of Cards have thrived off of the popularity of antiheros and moral complexity, Farmed and Dangerous is clearly set up with Buck Marshall, industrial food production PR mastermind, as the villain and Chip, young and attractive leader of the Sustainable Family Farming Association, as the hero.
If the audience is rooting for Buck, the show fails to make the audience buy into its message: factory farming is bad, while family farming – and by extension, Chipotle – is good.
Unfortunately, in comedy format, trying to hammer in this point can be as obvious as an advertisement or after-school special. When Farmed and Dangerous attempts to provide specific talking points, the show falls flat. Exchanges such as, “Dairy cows don’t need sunlight Chip.” “Mine get sunlight, that’s how they stay healthy,” and “More antibiotics are given to livestock than sick people, and you still have people dying from eating contaminated meat,” are hard to sell in a way that doesn’t sound like an infomercial. Still, Chipotle does manage to get concrete facts out to viewers.
The characters don’t help much in making the facts compelling. Buck is played by the strongest actor, Ray Wise, who has in the past had roles in Twin Peaks and Reaper. Meanwhile, the hero Chip comes off as more smarmy than charming, especially in his interest in Buck’s daughter Sophia, who is so far primarily defined by her sex appeal.
Producers presumably tried make the audience root for Chip, both in the sustainable farming battle and for Sophia’s affections, by making him simply better than the alternatives: Buck’s PR company’s sleazy employees, Sophia’s villainous fiancé, individuals exploding cows. In terms of television, the problem with these characters isn’t that they are nasty, but that they’re just not funny.
That’s not the say the show is unwatchable. One of the things the show gets right, often amusingly, is the PR speak that allows Buck to justify feeding cows petroleum. The reasoning that feeding cattle petroleum will cut down on the use of foreign fossil fuel is a disturbingly imaginable spin on a situation.
Ultimately for Chipotle, the question is not if Farmed and Dangerous good television, but is Farmed and Dangerous good advertising? Traditionally, brands can only make it on customer’s screens in advertisements or product placement. To return to House of Cards, brands such as Sony have invested in prominent, and at times awkward, screen time on the show. Does it make sense that Frank Underwood plays video games on the PS Vita? Probably not. But it gets the Sony product in front of viewers intently watching the screen, while helping Netflix finance the show.
Farmed and Dangerous, on the other hand, is completely free of product placement. When Chip and Buck’s daughter Sophia get food, it’s at a generic organic, locally grown restaurant, not Chipotle. There is no mention of the brand through the duration of the first episode, something that is promised to continue throughout the series.
Chipotle sells its message hard, but doesn’t sell Chipotle’s burritos hard. While this doesn’t always make for good television, it opens up a new avenue for advertising based on messages and values instead of products.