April 13, 2010
 

"TRUST ME," IT'S ALL ABOUT THE WORK

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By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor

The creators of "Mad Men" are probably smiling into their bone-dry martinis about now, because their new, modern-day competitor finally launched Monday night on TNT. It was originally called "Truth In Advertising," a surprisingly apt title since it has more ugly truth packed into its initial one-hour episode than the highly acclaimed AMC series revealed in two entire seasons. That's why "Mad Men" has nothing to worry about.

The new show's new title is the cynical starting point of the promises people make that we know can't always be trusted, like "the check is in the mail," "there's a train right behind this one," and "I won't get you pregnant." But the overriding truth about "Trust Me" is that it's not about collapsing marriages, office seductions, romantic client liaisons, suburban cheating or unplanned pregnancies--the grist of "Mad Men's" delicious soap opera elements that have kept a chunk of the population who've never set foot in an agency or corporate boardroom glued to their sets. "Trust Me" is all about the work. At least that's the exclusive focus of the lead episode.

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So the first question is, how accurate is it? The writer/art director team played by Eric McCormack and Tom Cavanagh have partnered each other seven years in their Chicago agency, and can literally finish each other sentences. The shop's account director is a buttoned-up, no-nonsense African-American, the CEO is a steely-voiced female (mysteriously, she's not shown in the first hour), the competitive creative group head down the hall is a mercurial Brit, and the new agency writer is a tough-as-nails, Clio-winning killer blond who's furious she doesn't have a window office. If you've worked in advertising all your life, this has the ring of reason. It gets better when the seasoned female writer (a sassy, heart-of-brass Monica Potter, playing the lone woman in a large group of mostly under-30 guys) grabs a promising line from a junior team's script, only to see that work and another exploratory campaign crash-and-burn in a focus group and a management review. Hey, it's your life up there.

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These events take place after the agency's ferocious exec creative director has fallen over dead in his office, apparently from a stroke, after wringing everyone out following a lousy internal on the Arc Mobil wireless account. (His response to hearing the work-to-date has been killed is to hurl the DVD containing it so hard across the conference room it sticks in the wall.) The bulk of the show follows the group's frantic efforts to mount a new campaign as Eric is promoted to group creative director. Along the way, Tom attends a memorial service for the deceased creative director and listens to a series of leaden tributes--all of them describing the fallen leader as "inspirational"--then steps up to the pulpit and delivers a blistering tirade on what a monster he was.

The episode concludes with the agency presentation to the Arc CEO, who dismisses the Brit's (Guy Ellis) recommended campaign as "safe." Just when you think the meeting's over and the account's heading into review, everyone watches with awe as Eric suddenly wings one of the silliest one-shot commercials based on a fear appeal you've ever listened to in your life. It ends with the tagline "What Can You Do With One Hand?" that the CEO actually likes because, as he says, "it makes me feel nervous." Momma mia, that's truly what Arc's silver-haired decision-maker says.

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You can begin to see why "Mad Men's" writer and directors won't lose sleep over whether their million and a half viewers that watched "Mad Men" episodes will migrate to What-Can-You-Do-With-One-Hand. After all, "Mad Men" has spent almost two solid seasons demonstrating what Don, Roger, Pete, Peggy, Betty and assorted spouses and lovers can do with two hands when they've got them on someone else. "Trust Me" is kind of a one-handed display because it's a shrewd demonstration of the contemporary ad biz before the economy tanked. It's fast, Scattered and shallow like a lot of writers and art directors are in real life. The show is clever in its ad-y winks such as a swimming pool opening that pays homage to Ridley Scott's iconic commercial for Chanel, and it's shameless in making us endure a long-winded pitch for Starbucks between the two creative partners. No wonder. Its creators are two former Chicago agency veterans, Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny, who've done duty at Y&R, Burnett and JWT, and are co-executive producers on TNT's "The Closer." The script has a mean attitude toward the blond copywriter (in a final coda she tries to go back to her old job at DDB, but the creative head turns her down because she's such a high-maintenance, nasty nuisance), but at least she's a heavyweight who gives as good as she gets, and Potter makes her a welcome alternative to Elizabeth Moss' mousey little Peggy.

There have been any number of motion pictures through the ages that have been set in ad agencies--from "The Hucksters," "Putney Swope" and "Lover Come Back" to "How To Get Ahead In Advertising," "Advertising Rules," and the forthcoming "Art and Copy," and most have failed at the box-office. Today we'd resist having to watch Michael Douglas bragging how greed-is-good in "Wall Street," and at the moment "Trust Me" is falling headlong into that quicksand pit. A lot of the buzz surrounding this new and amusing series is centered on the branded entertainment with real products and even real corporate middle managers who'll be coming our way in coming weeks. This show is tangy and attractive if you're not sweating losing your job along the Madison and Michigan Avenues of the world, and it's probably going to plunge deeper and deeper into the intricacies of brand equity, the psychology of The Big Idea, and the true meaning of Kevin Roberts' Lovemarks.

Don Draper knows all about Lovemarks, and sweetheart, they don't appear on his work.

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