From their push to incorporate natural and GMO-free food into the menus of national chains to their recent forays into fancifying pizza, Chipotle has always marched to its own beat.
This week, the Denver-based burrito-peddler launched one of its biggest and most unexpected maneuvers to date: a sitcom.
Well, not a sitcom in the strictest Seinfeldian definition of a small group of people navigating social mores while largely confined to a single-room living area, but a four-episode run of a full-length comedic narrative series nonetheless: Farmed and Dangerous.
The show premiered on Hulu on Feb. 17, with new episodes going live every Monday until the run finishes.
Two years in the making, the series is a sort of satire of the agricultural industry following the adventures of Chip Randolph, an activist and organic farmer trying to get the word out about petro-pellets, a new cattle feed that causes cows to explode. Yes. To explode. At every turn, he is foiled by the slick machinery and deep pockets of the industrial farming industry, and its villainous PR firm, iFib (the Industrial Food Information Bureau).
Daniel Rosenberg, the show’s co-creator and co-owner of Piro, the production company behind the show, describes the design of the series as similar to that of the classic sitcom Get Smart, with a constant conflict between the forces of chaos and control.
“When you watch it, you’ll see that the lead character, Chip Randolph, is the one sane person,” Rosenberg says. “And just about every other character is a little bit off.”
Part espionage drama, part sitcom, part love story, the series is as well-produced as just about anything you’ll see on cable TV, with slick cinematography and quality actors, including Ray Wise, who has performed runs on marquee shows like The West Wing, 24 and Mad Men.
While it’s not without its flat moments or obviously inserted talking points, Farmed and Dangerous is undeniably charming and features some gloriously absurd writing.
“What’s that?” a food executive asks a scientist.
“An eight-winged chicken,” the scientist groans.
“Awesome,” the executive swoons, like the scientist just landed a triple backflip.
And Farmed and Dangerous isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself either.
“At least it’s only on the Internet instead of real TV,” a PR guy tells the evil cattle rancher in response to demands to know “why my cows are exploding all over the Internet.”
“What if we produce a satire that pulls back the curtain on the disturbing world of sustainable farming?” he later suggests to combat negative publicity.
But part of what makes the series so fascinating is that despite being bought and paid for by Chipotle, despite the fact that Chipotle execs consulted on and approved the script, up to and including providing talking points, they aren’t really in it. Chipotle only appears twice in the four-episode run, both appearances little more than gags, which means that aside from some promotional tie-ins, Farmed and Dangerous really doesn’t have very much to do with Chipotle at all.
“If it is a commercial, it’s not a very good one,” says Chris Arnold, communications director at Chipotle, who was a principal consultant on the production. “It’s not about us. It’s a pretty out-of-the-box thing.”
But if it’s not a commercial, that raises the central question: Why?
Arnold says the goal is one of “values integration,” simply to get people thinking about what they eat, a thought process they believe will lead customers naturally in Chipotle’s direction. The company had some initial success in that venue with two beautifully animated short films that depict the factory farming process as somewhat nightmarish, but was looking to do something longer-form that would have more staying power. That lead them to making Farmed and Dangerous.
“We believe the more people are informed about their food, the more they will want to make healthy choices like eating at Chipotle,” says Arnold. “In some ways I think it’s not unlike how you would approach a political campaign.”
But that said, Arnold says that whenever decisions had to be made about messaging versus entertainment value, they went with entertainment value.
And believe it or not, Rosenberg says the challenge of translating Chipotle’s message into a story was one of his favorite parts of the project.
“Having written pilots for networks, and major motion pictures, the challenge here was doing all that, but adding one major element, which was the brand messaging,” says Rosenberg. “The whole point of this is to add value to people’s lives, to give them something entertaining. If you do that well, the messaging will work.”
Rosenberg says that while there are scenes that are informational, they made sure to get good jokes in there as well.
“Everyone loves the line when Buck Marshall says, ‘Those people died from eating, not starving. That’s progress,’” says Rosenberg. “So if you can come up with a line about petroleum being integrated into our food production process, that’s an incredible compliment to have gotten a lot of that information across, while still entertaining.”
And both Rosenberg and his co-writer and Piro co-owner, Tim Piper, feel strongly that this series may be a vanguard in the advertising industry. Piro was actually founded to pursue exactly this sort of work, by combining Rosenberg’s background in the entertainment industry with Piper’s work as an award-winning advertising creator.
“People don’t hate brands, they love brands,” Rosenberg says. “All we’re doing is finding a way into that through story integration, as opposed to the traditional route, which is interrupting people’s lives.”
Rosenberg cited Miracle on 34th Street and Castaway as examples of stories that were actually made stronger by the inclusion of brands.
“He [Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway] cared about delivering that package,” Rosenberg says.
From his perspective, Castaway was a film that could have been made just from someone at FedEx approaching director Robert Zemeckis and saying, “This is what FedEx is all about.”
And while Rosenberg says that they’ve been too busy with Farmed and Dangerous to worry much about what comes next, they have been approached.
“In all fairness, people are afraid,” Rosenberg says. “And they’re right to be. We’re essentially flipping the brand production model. … It’s a pretty unique proposition.”
But Rosenberg was also honest about what happens with that unique proposition when it is about something less wholesome than sustainable farming, say, big tobacco, even the big ag companies that Piro just helped pillory.
“We’re not in the position to be very precious about who our clients are right now,” Rosenberg says. “But I’d like to think that Tim and I would not be doing anything that would be morally questionable.”
That said, he’s upfront that flipping the model could be opening a giant can of worms on the viewing public. But Rosenberg thinks that entertainment consumers are more sophisticated than they’re given credit for.
“At the end of the day, everything on television is brand-funded,” Rosenberg says. “If [networks] make something, it has to be brand-friendly, or else they’re not going to be able to make it. At a certain point, as audience members, we have to take a certain level of responsibility for forming our own opinions.”
Though it’s not lacking for efforts to insert its own talking points into the dialogue, one of the ways Chipotle wants to see people form their own opinions is to use the show as a springboard for a discussion platform called Food for Thought, based on the Huffington Post.
“The goal is just to make people more curious about where their food comes from,” says Arnold.
Chipotle and Piro have yet to make the decision about whether to pursue a second season of Farmed and Dangerous, but left the story open enough to do so. But if the series continues, it isn’t likely to be for profit motives.
“We funded it, and there’s no expectation of making money,” says Arnold.
“Right now, it’s an investment.”