I’ve never panned a TV show on general principle before, but there’s a first time for everything.
The new CBS comedy The Crazy Ones stars Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar as Simon and Sydney Roberts, a father-daughter team running a Chicago ad agency. Williams is in Brilliant Holy Fool mode here, letting his mouth do the play-by-play of his firing synapses while supporting characters look on with expressions ranging from, “He’s weird and he scares me” to “He’s weird, but there’s method in his madness” to “He’s brilliant and adorable and every word out of his mouth is magic, and dammit, why can’t he be my dad? Why, God, why?!” As you’ve deduced, that kind of Williams project is not my cup of tea — I no longer have any memory of Patch Adams, thanks to a mix of shock treatment and hypnosis — but if it’s your cup of tea, well, there are worse examples, and you’ll probably enjoy this one.
No, my general objection has to do with how The Crazy Ones integrates real-world products into its scripts. The pilot revolves around the possibility that McDonald’s, one of the firm’s top clients, might take their business elsewhere. Simon responds with a “Hail Mary” pitch to get a famous pop star to sing a jingle from a 1972 McDonald’s ad, which leads to a few mildly amusing scenes wherein Simon and Sydney try to persuade Kelly Clarkson to sing in a McDonald’s ad even though she told them upfront that she doesn’t sing “jingles.” There’s one really fun scene in the pilot — Mad Men’s James Wolk, who plays an affable stud who’s good at pretty much everything, in the recording booth with Clarkson singing “It Ain’t the Meat, It’s the Motion” — and a few faintly interesting discussions of ad agency tactics that don’t really go anywhere.
What sticks in my craw, though, is the kid gloves treatment that The Crazy Ones gives to McDonald’s. When Simon pitches the client on a remake of a 1972 ad, and praises McDonalds as a brand that signifies warmth, togetherness, family, and so forth, we don’t get the sense — as is often the case on Mad Men, and as was the case on thirtysomething and other shows that were at least partly about advertising — that there is a difference between the sentiments that ad folks express to clients and what they say behind closed doors.
Does The Crazy Ones honestly expect us to believe that none of these supposedly tough, cynical, wise ad folks have anything cutting, sarcastic, or otherwise irreverent to say about McDonald’s behind closed doors? Not even the character played by Robin friggin’ Williams, who is defined mainly by his lack of an internal censor? No jokes about how fast food is making America fat, or how you never get the toy you want in a Happy Meal, or how the chain has traditionally aired incredibly condescending, even borderline minstrel-show ads aimed at customers of color, or how McDonald’s always gets the hit movie franchise tie-in while Subway gets the one that flops — nothing like that? Only “I drunk the Kool-Aid” regurgitations about how McDonald’s symbolizes togetherness, or somesuch horse pucky?
Mad Men is on a cable network, granted, but it’s still ad-supported, yet you hear its characters making cutting, even disparaging comments about their clients, many of whom are actual companies that still exist and buy ads during Mad Men. The Crazy Ones pilot, in contrast, feels like an ad for McDonald’s with a Robin Williams–Sarah Michelle Gellar show wrapped around it. That’s why I didn’t believe a second of the pilot, no matter how hard the actors worked to put the not-bad material across.
I realize that in deciding to use actual, existing brands as plot motors, the show set itself up to make creative compromises, but it did not have to make that particular choice (unless the network forced it on them). They could have made up a fast-food chain that was McDonald’s-like and had Simon riff on that, and we all would have known what he was really talking about, and nobody would have gotten in any trouble because the show would have been able to say, “Oh, we weren’t talking about you, so don’t worry!” But they didn’t do that. They used McDonald’s. And then they treated McDonald’s as if the show itself were a big McDonald’s ad. What client will get a Crazy Ones tongue bath next, Coca-Cola? General Motors? Monsanto?
Yes, I know, the show is intended as light entertainment, and it’s not as if a lot of other network series are temples of artistic purity. But even in the not-so-brave new world of rampant product placement within TV story lines, there is such a thing as totally selling out. By having a supposedly fearless Robin Williams character refrain from privately saying even gently mocking things about McDonald’s that you just know in your bones that a Robin Williams character would say, The Crazy Ones sells out. It’s not an unlikable show, but right off the bat I feel like I can’t trust it.