Chipotle is hardly the first sponsor to brave the programming game – indeed, not even for Hulu, since Subway underwrote a comedy pilot dubbed “The 4 to 9ers.” Still, “Farmed and Dangerous” does mark an unusual entry into production for the restaurant chain, inasmuch as it mixes pointed satire about corporate greed with wonky dissertations about food policy. The result is a four-episode series with more tang than one might have anticipated given the pabulum often churned out in ad-supported vehicles, yet which ultimately falls into a sort of narrative no-man’s land that’s neither fish nor fowl.
In pitch-meeting terms, the show’s money shot comes in the opening sequence, when PR/image guru Buck Marshall (Ray Wise) is receiving a demonstration of the newest product from Animoil, which involves feeding a petroleum-based substance directly to cattle to lower costs. The main side effect of the PetroPellet, he’s told by the CEO (Eric Pierpoint) and the company’s German scientist (Thomas Mikusz), is that the cows occasionally explode – which is precisely what this one does.
So Buck faces the rather uphill task of putting lipstick on this particular cow, enlisting his daughter and newest employee (Karynn Moore) to help him. She enthusiastically dives in, which includes trying to win over an advocate for sustainable farming (John Sloan), who pushes back against the corner-cutting maneuvers employed by Animoil and its distasteful implications for the food supply.
The sparring banter between these two beef-crossed characters is a lot older than Chipotle, down to the complication of her sneering country-club boyfriend. But their exchanges are often woefully stilted, feeling as much like a public-service announcement as an actual series.
“Farmed” fares somewhat better when Wise (“Twin Peaks”) commands center stage, strategizing with his minions at the Industrial Food Image Bureau about how to, say, downplay a YouTube video of the aforementioned cow, with the head of digital expressing relief that it “wasn’t on TV.”
What makes “Farmed and Dangerous” mildly interesting is seeing some of these Occupy Wall Street-type sentiments articulated through the prism of a corporate-commissioned TV show, one that mentions Chipotle – which employs the slogan “Food with integrity” – precisely once in a later chapter, yet which conveys an implied slight to other fast-food chains throughout.
Traditionally, advertisers have gone into programming to create what they see as a hospitable environment for their commercial messages. Here, the company approaches production with more ambition, but also slightly suspect aims, given how inseparable the message is from the messenger.
The marriage between advertisers and programming, in other words, remains an awkward one, even if their heart appears to be in the right place. Because “Why buy the cow when the milk’s laced with a petroleum-like substance?” could just as easily be read as “Why sit through a food-integrity lecture from a company that clearly has a dog in the fight, even if they sugar-coat the packaging?”