Watching the Hucksters Huck

AMC’s The Pitch wants to be a real-life Mad Men.

The Pitch, Houston TX
Matt Plavoukos, Gunnar Wilmot, Paul Cappelli in an episode of The Pitch

Photo by Kim Christensen/AMC.

The pitch for The Pitch (AMC, Mondays at 9 p.m.) is that it’s a fast-paced ad-dude reality show from the network that hooked you on Mad Men and the creator of Undercover Boss. Its existence serves as evidence that the marketing of marketing has reached a pinnacle, a pointing tip. It is a show about making ads, and the agencies are inherently selling themselves all the time, so the whole show is advertising for advertising, broken up only by commercial breaks where the funniest ads are the most knowing about selling self-reference.

Undercover Boss, with its incognito executives play-acting roles among the rank and file, ranks as boffo product-placement propaganda—and also works as a riff on both types of Marxian self-alienation. Tellingly, Boss boss Stephen Lambert earned credits on both sides of the nonfiction brow-divide earlier in his career—whipping up Wife Swaps on the one hand and working on Michael Apted docs on the other. The Pitch has it both ways. Watching the hucksters huck, we are witnessing another juiced-up creative competition. Simultaneously, we are dwelling, as ever, in the world described in The Century of the Self, a documentary series produced by Lambert (among others) and directed by Adam Curtis. The Century of the Self was a four-part trip that stretched from the vision of Freud through the field of his notorious nephew—Edward Bernays, “the father of public relations”—and reached into the back of the viewer’s head. Subtly but surely, The Pitch likewise diagrams the processes by which salesmen try to make crowds go mad. Coolly, wised up to the point of resignation, eager to peek at the machinery, we here examine the manufacture of mediated dreams.

Each week, behind clean glass walls, in uncluttered diction, the professionals prep their pitches to clients, confronting business crises and existential hassles at every turn, cracking jokes to break the tension. The sleekness of the office space, the clipped attitude, the pressurized focus on labor and toil—this kinda looks like Michael Mann’s idea of a reality show. It’s like a brushed-steel trashcan brimming with designer angst.

There’s a good diversity in the show’s agency stock—moderate fish in midmarket cities, big fish in regional ponds, little shops tentatively staving off the horror of going belly-up.  (The wonderfully named Liz Paradise, from North Carolina’s McKinney, describes her firm’s down-home touch: “People are a little more polite. We have a little saying: No [bleep] allowed.”) Because there’s a good diversity in the agencies, there’s a good diversity to the eyewear. Ad guys are second only to architects for expressing themselves, comically and otherwise, with their glasses. Indeed, one standout star of The Pitch, Tony Wong of the West Coast firm WDCW, rocks highly architectural specs that look like futuristic goggles for an aspiring Philip Johnson or I.M. Pei.

When we first met Wong, in the sneak preview for the series, the title cards were dispensing some mundane facts: “In the world of advertising, agencies compete to win business.” Then we anxiously watch Wong dash out a morning run amid fallen leaves while the soundtrack swelled so ominously that you may have started worrying that Michael Clayton’s car was going to blow up.

The Pitch gets very serioso in that manner, and it isn’t always clear that the ad dudes are in on the joke. On the subject of business-class hardships and the struggle to survive, one says, “You gotta slug it out in the gladiator arena with all these other naked, glistening, sword-wielding agencies.” That sentence is more homoerotic than the movie 300 or the halftime show Madonna put on this year at Super Bowl, the ultimate fighting venue for sword-wielders of televised desire—not that there’s anything wrong with that. No, what makes the metaphor odd is that the work under discussion is a proposal for a campaign for Subway.

The fast-food chain, expanding into the morning-gluttony space, now wants to convince people, and especially young men, to eat footlong bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches, so people say things like, “We’ve gotta do something that is additive to the way people feel about Jared.” Wong, at least, has a healthy perspective on the nuances of the challenge: “Gettin’$2 18-to-24 to have breakfast? Gonna be a bitch, man.” The Pitch is like an all-you-can-eat buffet of salesmanship.