Off brand: ‘The Sauce’ is a light-hearted dip into pop-culture mania

By Jim Sabataso
Correspondent

Let’s hit pause on our TV sets this week to talk about another entertainment medium: podcasts.

Last April, the Adult Swim cartoon “Rick and Morty” referenced Szechuan sauce, a flavored dipping sauce released by McDonald’s for a limited time as a promotional tie-in with the Disney film “Mulan” in 1998. The popular animated TV series’ notoriously fervent fan base immediately took to the internet to find a way to get their hands some of the sacred sauce.

Seeing an opportunity for an easy public relations win, McDonald’s released a limited amount of sauce at a handful of locations across the country last October. Unfortunately, the fast-food chain wildly underestimated demand. When supplies quickly ran out, fans, some of whom had driven for hours to stand in long lines just to get a taste, turned on the chain, blasting it on social media and, in some instances, fighting and rioting at restaurants.

“The Sauce” is an investigative podcast that tells the story of those events. Released by the tech website Gizmodo, the three-episode series is produced in conjunction with McDonald’s. While the chain’s participation affords host Catherine LeClaire a fair amount of access to key players of the story, it also gives the whole thing a safe, uncritical branded-content sheen.

McDonald’s does cop to how poorly prepared they were and comes off as genuinely contrite — especially for the stress it put on its employees, including one of its executive chefs, who was the target of vicious social-media harassment. However, the fact that the podcast itself was a launchpad for its late-February re-release of 20 million packets of Szechuan sauce, makes it feel like merely another tie-in. A more cynical reading is that the initial botched release was intentional, but the chain strongly denies that’s the case.

The podcast is more interesting for its concept than its execution. It does a decent job of clearly and factually unpacking an odd moment in popular culture that is worthy of further exploration. There is certainly a market for such explainer podcasts, like a low-brow version of “99% Invisible” that focuses on pop-culture phenomena, internet virality and other bits of cultural ephemera. What about a deep dive on the Tide Pod Challenge or an oral history of the Blue/Gold Dress debate?

Oftentimes, these moments are little more than entertaining snapshots of our culture and the silly things that occasionally capture our collective imagination. That said, they are not without anthropological merit; such moments have potential to provide fascinating glimpses into the politics and social dynamics of a society.

Unfortunately, the light-hearted, surface-level analysis in “The Sauce” misses an opportunity for some timely cultural criticism. LeClaire is a self-aware host who’s more interested in making tongue-in-cheek winks at her intrepid podcasting skills than actually doing anything intrepid or journalistic.

A more nuanced and in-depth account of events would have explored themes of toxic fandom, internet harassment and brand-consumer relationships in the social-media age. As a product of a marketing campaign itself, “The Sauce” largely ignores these issues or, at best, gives them cursory consideration.

The podcast also never mentions “Rick and Morty” by name, which suggests either the show’s creators did not want to be involved or (more likely) McDonald’s did not want to share its branded-content spotlight with a show whose fans already proved to be so troublesome.

While that’s understandable given the commercial goals of the podcast, it nonetheless made the production feel incomplete. Even before the Szechuan sauce debacle, “Rick and Morty” fans were notorious for being some of geek culture’s most zealous. Last year, series co-creator Dan Harmon forcefully called out fans when they began harassing one of the show’s woman writers on social media. By failing to provide this context, the podcast makes it seems as though the response to the Szechuan sauce release was a quirky outlier rather than part of a troubling pattern of toxic behavior and entitlement that stretches far beyond “Rick and Morty” fans.

Among its broad fan base, the show has attracted a subset of emotionally stunted adult men who are fiercely protective of the cultural artifacts and texts they love. The show is by no means unique in this. These are the same angry, self-loathing types who harassed women video game designers during Gamergate, threw tantrums over women Ghostbusters and, most recently, tanked the Rotten Tomatoes score for “The Last Jedi” because they didn’t like the film.

Zoom out and you’ll see a straight line between these ill-tempered men and toxic corners of the internet like 4chan and Reddit, where they congregate and plot against anyone who threatens their fragile straight-white-male cultural status quo. From there it’s only a short trip to the alt-right, where, over the past couple years, these sad men’s insecurities have been exploited by demagogues like Steven Bannon and Donald Trump. (It’s not as far of an intellectual leap as you think.)

While I agree it’s not the job of branded content to tackle these issues with any sort of intellectual rigor or journalistic precision, I found myself frustrated that some listeners might walk away from this podcast without understanding the larger context. I never expected “The Sauce” to do any of this work, but it left me wanting a podcast that would. Maybe I should start one.

CHECK IT OUT

“The Sauce” is available for download on most podcasting apps.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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