The Onion, the beloved news-satire site with a knack for distilling any given moment in American life into a witty headline, is trying its hand at audio with the release of a true-crime podcast spoof. And it’s pretty good.
A Very Fatal Murder binge-dropped all of its episodes earlier this week, and it sports a suitably loony plot: Directed by Ryan Nantoli and Fran Hoepfner, the podcast follows David Pascall, a reporter for Onion Public Radio (voiced by comedy writer David Sidorov), as he searches for the perfect murder around which he could build a potentially award-winning podcast. With an assist from a supercomputer — specially designed by MIT engineers to look for “the most interesting, violent, and culturally relevant murder cases in America,” and later adjusted to dig up stories that involve white working-class resentment — Pascall is made aware of the fictional Nebraskan small town of Bluff Springs, where the death of high-school prom queen Hayley Price remains unsolved. Pascall sets off to find justice (and fame), and hijinks ensue.
AVFM mines a fair bit of its value from aping traits associated with a certain kind of true-crime podcast, namely, the kind that features a thinky central narrator, plinking piano accompaniment, and an earnest ambition to say something about America. It is also moderately effective in its satirical goals, which revolve around the eyebrow-raising relationship between well-meaning journalistic investigations (à la the first season of Serial, In the Dark, and so on), the glossing over of the murder victims who end up being the subject of those enterprises, and the rapacious but morally unclear hunger of the listening public for such macabre content.
That said, AVFM doesn’t quite realize its potential as satire aimed at the disconcerting popularity of the entire true-crime podcast universe, from the public-radio-flavored ones being parodied here to the more explicitly lurid ones like the generically named Unsolved Murders. For one thing, the podcast runs up against an old nut when it comes to the game of impersonations: It emulates well, but it doesn’t reveal very much in doing so. (SNL tends to illustrate this dynamic well. Consider the relative placidity of Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump when compared to Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush; one reflects, the other unlocks.)
For another, AVFM doesn’t bring many new ideas to the table, as far as satire goes. These days, I tend to divide history into two categories: everything that came before American Vandal, Netflix’s amazing true-crime documentary spoof from last fall, and everything that has come after. That glorious show was so much more than just dick jokes: It was a closely observed, pitch-perfect, and uncannily thoughtful enterprise that deployed genre tropes in the service of telling a much more interesting story, one that unpacked the experience of high-school hierarchies, the lives of modern teens, and the sociological phenomenon known as the white SoCal dudebro. If attention is the same thing as love, as the nun in Lady Bird suggested, then American Vandal was one of the finer acts of loving, exhibiting a distinct fondness for both the genre it portended to parody and the subjects it considered. It’s not fair to compare one project to another, especially when they operate in separate mediums, but I can’t help thinking about Dylan Maxwell and those spray-painted dicks when listening to Pascall’s adventures in Bluff Springs. The critiques AVFM make are low-hanging fruit, and the way they are plucked doesn’t quite feel like anything new. All of this is made infinitely more frustrating by the heart and wit of the broader Onion enterprise, which has long been able to cut to the heart of tragedies far more effectively than many actual news organizations.
AVFM really works, and becomes borderline exceptional, when it moves away from satire and leans hard into absurdity. Which is to say, it functions best as a cartoon, a dimension that expresses itself through hilarious fake-ad reads, excessively clever asides, and a mid-series structural twist — which I won’t spoil because it’s truly brilliant — that evokes strong hints of Portlandia. Interestingly enough, when viewed from this perspective, AVFM feels much closer in spirit to the sly zaniness of Welcome to Night Vale than anything else. The two podcasts are linked by a rich surreality, a comedic arsenal dense with deadpan jabs, and an appealing theatricality. Even the fictional Nebraskan town’s name of Bluff Springs is close to that of Night Vale’s small-town rival, Desert Bluffs.
All in all, A Very Fatal Murder is an interesting and genuinely entertaining first stab by the Onion at longer-form audio parody. I’m not particularly in love with it, but it does make me smitten with the possibilities of what might comes next from the team.
You can find A Very Fatal Murder here.