Chipotle's hilariously scary take on the industrial food system

February 13, 2014: 10:36 AM ET

The satire Farmed and Dangerous, produced by the burrito chain, hits its mark most of the time.

140213102750-chipotle-farmed-and-dangerous-620xaFORTUNE -- There is nothing subtle about the comedic assault on industrial agriculture mounted by the TV comedy Farmed and Dangerous. The show depicts the attempt by a company called Animoil to introduce a product called PetroPellet. Cows eat the oil-based pellets and begin blowing up. That does not stop Animoil from pushing PetroPellet onto the market, despite the efforts of an earnest, do-gooding family farmer/activist to thwart the company.

The series, to run next week on Hulu, was produced by Chipotle (CMG), which has made "sustainability" its brand. Farmed and Dangerous is both smart and wickedly funny, and it nearly always hits its mark. When it doesn't, it's because the series was created not foremost as entertainment, but as marketing.

The hero of the tale, Chip Randolph, is a good-natured smirker in the vein of Ron Livingston's Peter Gibbons character in the 1999 sleeper classic Office Space, but without the dark edge. Without, in fact, any kind of edge at all, which is where the essential problem lies. A successful satire satirizes everybody. In Office Space, the "good" guys were really pretty dysfunctional, and the film confronted that issue head-on. In Farmed and Dangerous, the do-gooders are sadly one-dimensional (they do good -- that's it): the better to contrast with the hilariously evil food-industry villains. The only people easier to make fun of than corporate villains are liberal-activist types, but that wasn't even attempted here.

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The show, however, is certainly funny enough to be worth watching, though it seems unlikely to change anybody's mind either way about the food system. Much of the humor comes from the names of things: Animoil -- as both a word and a concept -- should be enough by itself to earn the show some kind of over-the-top television award. Or failing that, an Emmy.

Animoil is represented by an outfit called the Industrial Food Image Bureau (get it?), which is headed by Buck Marshall, played by Ray Wise, best known from Twin Peaks, and the show's biggest get. Buck's daughter Sophia comes to work for IFIB She's introduced as a quasi-sociopathic corporate go-getter, but begins to soften under the light of farmer Chip's winning smile and slightly rakish menschiness. He's just a helluva guy, Chip is, and who could resist his offer of a ripe, locally grown, pesticide-free tomato?

PetroPellets, despite being made with oil, are sold as vastly reducing the use of petroleum in farming. Rather than grow all those crops using oil-based fertilizer, and then haul them on oil-driven trucks and trains to get them to cattle, why not just feed the oil directly to the cows? And if that isn't enough to sell you, PetroPellet contains "no artificial coloring."

The side effects on the cows are minimal, Animoil CEO Mick Mitcherson assures Buck Marshall, "except sometimes they explode." Buck is hesitant at first. "People don't want oil in the food chain," he protests. "Sure they do," replies Mitcherson, "there's peanut oil, olive oil ..." Eventually, of course, Buck Marshall comes around, since that's what he's paid to do. When Chip confronts him with the fact that people often die from eating contaminated meat, he notes that "those people die from eating, not starving. That's progress."

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After Chip posts a purloined video of an exploding cow on YouTube, the show progresses as a bit of a farcical thriller played against an ongoing debate over the food system. One of the most pointed scenes is when Mitcherson tells his increasingly disturbed chief scientist (who against his own better judgment has just invented an eight-winged chicken), "We pay you to solve problems, not point them out."

Chipotle is mentioned only once, in passing, during a party scene where somebody, referring to a persistent, real-world misconception, asks: "Doesn't McDonald's own Chipotle?" Buck Marshall replies: "That's just a rumor I started. It's still got legs."

Another tasty bit of self-reference comes when somebody at IFIB suggests: "What if we produce a satire that pulls back the curtain on the disturbing world of sustainable farming? These days, there are tons of failed showbiz types out there peddling this new-media crap, and everyone works for pennies."

Actually, that sounds like a great pitch.

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