By Hillary Busis
Updated May 01, 2012 at 04:10 PM EDT
David M. Russell/AMC

Reality variations on popular scripted series have a long and semi-storied history. The O.C. begat Laguna Beach. Glee begat The Glee Project. Desperate Housewives begat about 87 percent of what airs on Bravo. So it’s easy to understand why AMC developed The Pitch, a new docuseries that’s meant to be a modern companion to Mad Men. Though the network’s most critically acclaimed show features plenty of client meetings and brainstorming sessions, it’s often more of a soapy character study than a workplace drama. The Pitch, then, can theoretically satisfy those who want to know more about how an advertising agency really works.

In each episode, two different agencies are tasked with dreaming up campaigns for the same product. Episode 1 — a premiere that re-aired last night after a special sneak peek in early April — features Durham, North Carolina’s McKinney and L.A.’s WDCW as they prepare competing commercials for Subway breakfast sandwiches. There’s no inherent reason why this set-up shouldn’t work; before I saw Project Runway for the first time, I never would have guessed that watching a group of colorful weirdos sew could be completely absorbing.

But while Project Runway, Top Chef, and any number of reality competitions are stuffed with their fair share of product placement — don’t forget to sample some Swanson broth while examining the accessories wall! — the entire point of The Pitch is product placement. It’s hard to view this show without feeling like you’ve been duped into watching an hour-long commercial… one that’s occasionally interspersed with other, shorter commercials.

The show’s featured players work hard to win us over by claiming to be risk takers who prize creativity above all else: “We understand what it means to put everything on the line for something you believe in,” says one McKinney exec. It’s an admirable sentiment — but it’s tough to take him seriously when you know that what the company “believes in,” in this case, is freakin’ breakfast sandwiches. His words have even less resonance after we see which campaign Subway ultimately selects: A played-out rap about sandwiches that the agency’s copy team didn’t even write themselves.

And cognitive dissonance isn’tThe Pitch‘s only problem. The visibly nervous copywriters who appear in the premiere aren’t exactly Don Drapers in training; seeing them throw out lame commercial catchphrases (“Girl, you are looking flavorized!”) to stony-faced older execs is uncomfortable at best and excruciating at worst. Simply put, Mad Men makes advertising look cool. The Pitch proves that it’s actually hard work — but that alone isn’t enough to make the profession telegenically compelling.

The Pitch‘s realistic aesthetic is appealing, and its basic premise definitely has potential. As of now, though, the execution is off — and if there’s one thing I learned from watching episode 1, it’s that in advertising, execution is everything.

Did you watch The Pitch, PopWatchers? Are you sold — or do you think AMC’s new series should go back to the drawing board?

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