AMC’s The Pitch: Ball Four

What’s the most important meal of the day?

Exactly. You answered “breakfast,” and so would I. This question never even gets asked in The Pitch…but more on that later.

***

I’ll give AMC some credit for gutsiness. All around them, other networks are trying to re-create the success of Mad Men. We’ve already watched The Playboy Club and Pan-Am fail. The latest contender, Mad City on Starz, may not fail as fast — they’ve already taped a whole season, and there’s a lot of sex on screen — but it will never be as good as the shows it’s imitating.

Meanwhile, instead of resting content with the millions of dollars it’s making off of tie-in deals, AMC is premiering a reality show about advertising called The Pitch. They’re putting real ad agencies up against Don Draper, which is sort of amazing. He’s the most glamorous male figure on television. Is now really the right time to show us the sad little men and women behind the curtain?

Well, no, but AMC’s going ahead with it regardless, much to our benefit. The Pitch is an object lesson in the inanity of American corporations. If it were possible for a show like to this to be a satire, it would make a great one; the rule is “be good, or be good at it,” and these guys are neither. We get to go behind the scenes, miraculously present at the creation of yet another stale moment in the life of a tentative, pandering brand. In this case, the brand is Subway.

Before we ever get there, we’re introduced to daily life at two agencies. The opening shot is of Tracy Wong, the founding partner at WDCW. He’s jogging, and based on the melodramatic music and the overly understated Helvetica typeface, I think he’s supposed to look incredibly cool. He’s, you know, jogging because he’s a fighter. We’re watching Rocky preparing to go into the ring. The problem is that Tracy’s jogging somewhere really cold, and so, like any person who doesn’t want to die, he’s wearing leggings and a bunch of other gear. Even Sly couldn’t pull off this outfit. He looks like a man who’s late to a really intense demonstration of making coffee with a French press.

Then, according to the terms of his contract, Tracy will say one thing that is absolutely not true, followed by some delightfully mixed metaphors. “The world is not kind to advertising agencies,” he reports. “So you just start clawing, and scratching, and swimming.” What the fuck is this guy imagining? A shark crossed with a bobcat or what? Then this bobshark (as I call it) apparently crawls onto land and grabs a sword, in order to fight in “a gladiator arena against all these other naked, glistening agencies.”

Tracy introduces us to his work. They’ve done Alaska Airlines, T-Mobile, and Quizno’s, three of the least appealing brands in the country. All of the color palettes are too bright. All of them made huge image changes while pretending we didn’t notice. I would estimate that nobody in the entire country knows who’s even supposed to buy these products.

Anyway, I shouldn’t be too hard on Tracy, because he is a fountain of sayings. My favorites include him saying that advertising “is like figure-skating…you put on pretty sequined outfits,” and telling his team, “I like that you give people the opportunity to speak zAMbie to a sandwich artist.” Because what the minimum wage earners of America need, more than anything right now, is a bunch of customers speaking to them in a novelty zombie language!

Now we get to the next section, called THINGS PEOPLE SAY AT STAFF MEETINGS THAT MAKE ALL THEIR EMPLOYEES WANT TO COMMIT SEPPUKU. These include:

“We don’t like playing it safe. It’s about doing things that no-one has ever seen before.” -Tracy (once again, the creative force behind the T-Mobile campaign)

“We’re a medium-sized company. That lends the whole feeling of family. We have a bit of a split personality. There’s a southern gentility that has washed into the agency.” -Liz Paradise (What does this “acceptance” produce? “We have a saying: no bullshit.” Wait, WHAT?)

“We understand what it means to put everything on the line for something you believe in.” -Liz

“One of my pet phrases is I don’t want S.O.S., otherwise known as Same Old Subway.” -Subway guy (and you just know he says this every single day, and everyone is mouthing the words if he can’t see them doing it)

***

Finally, via Subway guy, we get to the assignment: market Subway breakfast sandwiches to 18-24 year olds. Meanwhile, of course, Subway is advertising to us through The Pitch, which comes pretty goddamn hard on the heels of Subway appearing as a major plot point in a shameless episode of Community. They’re trying so hard to be credible and viral that, well, it’s just adorable.

WDCW has no creative process. The creative director, Matt McCain, pretends to listen to his employees. He gives one guy enough rope to hang himself with “Greasytown,” the story of a breakfast rebel shouting through a bullhorn. Then he pushes through his own idea, “zAMbies,” based on the idea of people being half-awake early in the morning. This takes over WDCW completely and becomes their pitch, but it can never work. There’s no hook. Yeah, it’s a problem being half-awake in the morning, but there’s already a solution to this problem, and it’s called coffee. Just to seal the deal, McCain starts the test video out with a really funny faux-documentary on zombies, and then suddenly switches to an incredibly loud and absolutely terrifying “we’re dumb and we know it” pitch.

Meanwhile, over at McKinney, it turns out that “a family feeling” means having two teams competing with each other. The two teams are chosen on the basis of prettiness, though of course Liz has to chime in that they’re “the right age, the right mindset” and she trusts them completely. One team, Stevie and Meg, actually never manage to have a single idea throughout the whole episode. The other team consists of a long-haired slacker dude named Will — the only person in sight who maybe eats at Subway, on occasion — and Jenny, the episode’s tragic hero.

Jenny has the personality of somebody who has been up all night watching Sesame Street and Captain Kangaroo, while drinking Red Bulls faster than you can say “2-for-1 special at 7-Eleven.” In about ten minutes of screen time, she presents approximately 7,400 different ideas, all of them involving either a) puppets and funny voices or b) concepts taken from the $150 “weekend of pampering” at the neighborhood spa. She was even more fun to watch than Tracy. She proposes cheerleaders and foot massage therapists. She voices a bear claw and (very convincingly) an energy drink. She looks straight into the camera and says, “I’m a very passionate person. There’s a motor that doesn’t ever stop.” (We’re just supposed to know, from context, that this motor somehow wound up inside her brain.) She makes an interpretive dance joke, as though it is still 2003.

We go deeper into the creative phase. Stevie and Meg work around having no ideas by promoting a viral rap video by a guy named MacLethal. (I can’t make this shit up.) This leads to things I could hardly bear to watch, including middle-aged agency execs “getting down,” and MacLethal sounding incredibly pleased to be able to sell out this big, this fast. (He even trots out a derivative little tagline, “How do you do your Thursday at Subway?”) Then we learn that while Stevie is a terrible copywriter, she’s a pretty good ad critic. She goes head-to-head with her boss, a detestable nebbish named Jonathan Cabe, over Cabe’s plans to make MacLethal look even more ridiculous than he already is. Her priceless remarks:

We’re not going to cut away from him and zoom in on juicy tomatoes flying through a stream of water…we’ve seen lots of videos of people who have been co-opted from YouTube, and get the chance to do a high-production video, and it comes off feeling forced.

Well said, Stevie. Finally, McKinney ends up with a perfectly decent rap video, which Subway rejects because they don’t think it sells food.

Jenny’s ideas are terrible as well. She’s just too hyperactive to imagine any audience besides herself. Yet it’s her team’s tagline, “Let’s Fix Breakfast,” that wins. That’s a paraphrase of Jonathan, who brainstorms by imagining telling these consumers, “It’s time to grow up, and have a real breakfast instead of having a bar, or whatever it is.” Jonathan likes this, because he thought of it. Subway likes it because it reflects how they see themselves: as a healthy restaurant fighting for flavor and nutrition against the evil hamburger chains. Because you “fix” breakfast with big pieces of food, Subway thinks the campaign has “appetite appeal.”

This is the point where, in Mad Men, Don Draper walks in and blows the room away; in the process, he teaches us something about the sadness that collects like condensation in our hearts. I recently had a chance to catch up with Mr. Draper, and here’s what he said:

Give me a break. These are kids. They don’t want to help you fix breakfast, and they definitely aren’t looking to be scolded. “Grow up?” They already have. Every single one of them thinks the problem isn’t breakfast, it’s them. They’re either trying to make it through college, or trying to survive at their first adult job, or both. Either way, they’re more aware than ever that breakfast is “the most important meal of the day,” and they’ve never eaten it less in their lives. It’s the one thing they can skip to pretend that they’re “dieting.” It’s no longer served to them by Mom, and Mom isn’t there to force them out of bed. Also, they’ve begun to jog, just like Tracy here, and jogging takes time. You think they’ll do what a morning advertisement says, if you make them laugh at “zAMbie,” but you’re wrong, because they’ve been planning their non-breakfast since falling asleep the previous evening. They stayed out late partying — and, in the back of their minds, they were preparing to feel guilty the whole time. Right next to them was somebody who can party all night, and then write a paper or run that meeting on an hour of sleep, and still get more congratulations than your potential customer will ever get. They’d like to know his secret, if they can. How does she do it? How the hell does he do it? Well, ladies and gentleman, by eating a healthy sandwich. The most important meal of the day, and they got it from Subway. That’s how.

Whiskey, anyone?

End credits: “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy (I Got Love In My Tummy),” by The Ohio Express

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