Most people tuning into Friday’s premiere of The Onion News Network on IFC probably knew what to expect. For over 20 years, The Onion’s brand of print humor has made us laugh — and since 2006, we’ve enjoyed The Onion News Network’s online videos. In its newest incarnation, The ONN makes the leap to television and hits all the right strides. Several of the show’s segments were released and well-received online before ONN’s premiere, but any sense of inertia viewers may have felt was allayed by the addition of the Factzone’s great cast. Suzanne Sena plays ONN’s Stepford anchor, Brooke Alvarez, an icy blond megalomaniac whose polished newscaster cadence and inflection seem almost too convincing. This comes as no surprise: Sena is a former on-air Fox News personality. Alvarez begrudgingly shares the spotlight and her only-barely-ostentatious set with touch screen operator Tucker Hope (a nod to CNN’s John King), the First Responders (the rag tag panel of talking heads from ONN online who make Brooke “look attractive by comparison”), and a coterie of faux field reporters, political analysts, and pop culture experts — none of whom Brooke can abide. Here, the news format itself is the main topic of parody.
ONN’s more indelicate jokes work for two reasons: as always, The Onion knows exactly where to place the laugh — and there’s very little wink wink from the show’s cast. Not one among them betrays any hint that they might think the things they’re saying are ridiculous. When reporting that, during the trial of Detroit high school student Hannah Stevenson, accused of stabbing a classmate to death with a screwdriver, a judge had decided that the young, attractive white teenager would be tried as a black adult, Brooke Alvarez shows only stoic journalistic detachment. The segment’s actors convincingly deliver lines like this between sobs: “This is America. No one deserves to be treated like a black man.” And because ONN doesn’t condescend to its viewers, we take for granted that the joke is on the prejudices of the legal system. I can imagine a lesser show handling the same topic more clumsily.
Just when you think the show may have become too outrageous, an actual news story presents itself as a foil. (After all, The Onion’s prescience is a thing of legend). Because news media has become such a parody of itself, ONN’s turning things up to 11 is, at times, nearly imperceptible. It seems cruel to ask a 15-year-old girl, after being rescued from a fire, how she’d live her life so that the death of the fire fighter who saved her didn’t result in a “net loss”. When we consider the public’s almost immediate backlash against the golden-voiced (and formerly homeless and drug addicted) Ted Williams at his first misstep, it’s apparent that, though The Onion excels in fake news, its writers are reporting on human nature extrapolated to its natural, sometimes dark, end. Similarly handled is coverage of beautiful, kidnapped ONN reporter Susan Merriweather, who has been savagely deprived of her hair and makeup teams by terrorists, resulting in “very disturbing” footage of Merriweather with flat hair. There’s no mention of the danger she faces or any extraction efforts — in fact, stylists are airlifted in in hopes that they too will be kidnapped. Any façade of humility network anchors are forced to wear is stripped away in The Factzone. The show channels 4chan in retaliation against a self-satisfied, erudite viewer’s correction of misreported historical timelines. The brutal takedown is almost cathartic for anyone who’s ever faced off against anonymous internet commenters, and all too familiar for anyone who’s seen Bill O’Reilly’s producers stalking someone for a story.
The Onion News Network veers into the weird and lowbrow in segments like “This Day in History,” in which the inventor of the handjob is celebrated for his “elegant and simple” achievements, Tucker Hope’s Daily Briefing about legislation that will force sex offenders to wear jorts and mullets — and “Eye on the Nation.” The latter focuses, inexplicably, on the guardedly opportunistic reactions of a small town’s inhabitants to a tire abandoned behind a grocery. Only Bob and Ray have handled the mundane so expertly. Somehow, The Onion News Network still finds room to skewer topical and pop culture news. What if Kim Jong-Il were so obsessed with Western culture, he agreed to exchange a role in the new Batman film for nuclear disarmament? Would the US begin diplomatic talks with the North Korean leader then? What if otherwise democratic voters elected Sarah Palin president out of morbid curiosity? What if Joe Biden had a gross “psychedelic rock meets surf” band? What if waves of soldiers from the future were hell-bent on stopping Suri Cruise? These stories’ successes are in the details. A Sarah Palin Choose-Your-Own adventure book gives readers the option to either change the drinking age to 14 or build a Canadian border wall. And the Biden Band’s album (titled PB and Joe) contains a love song to the singer’s sister-in-law. We never find out what the time travelers are trying to stop Suri Cruise from doing, but a quick shot of a faded, threadbare pamphlet titled “Dismantling the Post-Surian Dictator State” gives us an idea.
There’s no dearth of fake news today — The Colbert Report and The Daily Show being television’s standards by which to measure the rest — and ONN’s style of almost uncanny replication as parody has been done before on British shows like On the Hour and The Day Today, but with this premiere, The Onion News Network proves it’s aiming at a place among the best.
Is Becca O’Neal a Chicago-based freelance writer? Because her mom is kind of worried.