AMC’s “The Pitch,” which premieres Monday night, is a sharply-made if slightly off-putting reality series that follows different advertising agencies each week as they compete for new accounts. It’s a fight to the death over such brands as Subway’s breakfast items, Frangelico liqueur, air conditioners, a women’s clothing line and a luxe chain of Marriott hotels.
The inspiration for the show — made clear by its own ad campaign — is to harness some of the verve generated by the network’s acclaimed “Mad Men,” which finds relief from its own mid-century ennui by turning to Don Draper’s self-assured brilliance in “pitch” meetings with clients.
As a profession, advertising has been a reliably interesting career choice for television characters (the other biggies being architect or magazine editor), pitting a creative protagonist against the stuffed-shirt antagonist in the corner office, be it Darrin Stephens’s attempts to impress Larry Tate in “Bewitched” or the Michael and Elliot Co.’s disastrous merger with DAA in “thirtysomething.” Advertising can establish our hero as a cultural rogue, someone who is so in tune with zeitgeist that he or she can influence it, shape it and sell it.
Though “The Pitch” tries to capitalize on this notion of the insanely smart copywriter and the mutual triumphs of the creative class, the show also too easily locates the pompous jerk in everyone it meets, even the people we’re ostensibly supposed to like. As a bit of positive PR for the advertising profession, “The Pitch” has a way of making the ad world seem like a real downer — a repugnant exercise in egotism laced with depressing bouts of creative compromise. (Just like “Mad Men,” I suppose.)
Here, Madison Avenue martini-lunch glory has given way to workaholism in exposed-brick enclaves in suburban industrial parks of the 21st century, where unhappy workers sit around tables and stare vacantly at dry-erase boards and iMac screens whenever they’re not busy badmouthing one another. If it’s not quite the gripping television its producers hoped for, it still beats watching people enter their children in beauty pageants.
During its sneak-peek premiere three weeks ago, two agencies were given one week to compete for Subway’s breakfast business. A Los Angeles agency, headed by a hubristically confident ad wizard who compared his profession to gladiators in an arena, built a hyperkinetic campaign around the concept of zombies who mindlessly eat processed sausage-and-egg biscuits every morning.
The other agency, based in North Carolina, enlisted the help of a YouTube rapping sensation, pushing the slogan “Let’s Fix Breakfast.” Subway’s marketing guru picked that campaign over the zombie pitch. (Because, really: Enough with the zombies.)
For the official premiere episode on Monday, “The Pitch” follows another two agencies in pursuit of a new account from WM (Waste Management), a giant garbage company based in Houston. Viewers of CBS’s “Undercover Boss” may recall when WM’s top executive participated in that reality series; now is as good as time as any to point out that “The Pitch” and “Undercover Boss” share producers. “The Pitch” may be a slicker and more intellectual experience than the tear-jerky “Undercover Boss,” but there’s an uncomfortably pro-corporate subtext in both. By bringing us in on the pitch, we’ve merely been duped into a watching a show about advertising (with commercials) that never dares question the message.
WM asks for a new campaign to tout its method for turning trash into energy. A large Las Vegas agency, SK+G, pits its acrimonious co-creative directors against one another in an effort to gin up a Web-friendly strategy that will go viral. Another agency, the New York-based Ad Store, leans in a more elegant direction when its founder — an old pro whose better campaigns included Max Headroom’s ads for Coke and whose glory days are seemingly behind him — comes up with the clever slogan “Trash Can.”
Neither agency is shown having any concerns whatsoever about WM’s reputation or environmental bona fides — how is trash converted into electricity, anyhow? What comes across is the ad profession’s inherent aversion to inquiry, in deference to sloganeering. No agency succeeds by asking its client to prove its claims, but “The Pitch” would be a better show if its subjects ever voiced any doubts about the work they do. The shallow moral to “The Pitch” is that there is nothing more repugnant than an honest question. In a consumer economy, healthy skepticism is to be avoided at all costs.
(one hour) airs Monday at 9 p.m. on AMC.