The litany of complaints against 24-hour television news is as tired as it is true. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and their spawn are vapid, flashy, and superficial, simultaneously distracted and self-absorbed. Their telegenic anchors deliver equally telegenic stories (the latest missing or murdered blonde child) with thinly veiled air of superiority. Onion News Network parodies television news by cranking all of these negative attributes up to 11. The result is occasionally topical and intermittently laugh-out-loud funny, but nearly as exhausting as the form it skewers.
The fighting-fire-with-fire tactics begin in the premiere episode, airing 21 January, which features snarky blonde anchor Brooke Alvarez. In a bit of truth is stranger than fiction, Alvarez is played by Suzanne Sena, formerly of Fox News. In her role as news dominatrix of “The Fact Zone,” she asserts, “Kidnapped reporter looks terrible.” The joke could stop there, and in the print Onion very well might. On Onion News Network, though, the timid newcomer Tucker Hope (Todd Alan Crain) uses primitive touchscreen technology to illuminate the tragedy. “Oh god, what did they do to her hair there?” she exclaims. After some more tut-tutting, Alvarez closes by saying, “I don’t understand why they had to take her instead of one of our hairy, pale, print journalists.”
The comedic point of this segment, then, is that superficial, self-absorbed television anchors look down on their less attractive print colleagues—who probably do the real reporting. But this point has been made before, in media studies courses as well as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Those shows succeed because of their specificity: they deal with real media, and (sadly), they never lack for fresh material. ONN, by contrast, has the concepts but has to invent its own examples. Not only does this make for thin and uneven premises for jokes, but the critiques are also obvious.
ONN deals with these problems by increasing the jokes per minute count. This can work with shorter segments (ONN began as a series of web videos, some of which have been repurposed here), but becomes overwhelming in half-hour blocks. A host of in-studio talent offers deadpan one-liners; the chyron scrolls with unrelated jokes; and often there’s a joke graphic as well. The screen is as information-dense as a real television news broadcast, which at least one viewer finds somewhat wearying.
The rapid-fire, information-dense production makes ONN feel like a show without a center—in that it is, again, much like cable news. But where The Daily Show and The Colbert Report cohere around the strong personalities of their stars (Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert genuinely anchor their shows), ONN chooses fidelity to concepts over compelling characters. Brooke Alvarez shows no more depth than an interchangeable Fox News anchor.
In one segment, “U Say,” Alvarez responds to viewer mail. When a history teacher corrects her on the date of the Alamo’s founding, Alvarez concedes the error. She then goes on to use the bullying power of her position to research everything about her now-adversary, including a hidden-cam video of her husband having an affair. While this may illustrate something about her character, it does more to reiterate her power as a media professional. She has a thin skin and abuses her power, again, critiques we’ve heard before.
Of course, satire doesn’t need to rely on realistic or three-dimensional characters. (In fact, it most often relies on two-dimensional types.) But it does need a fresh and consistent point of view. Absent that, ONN is best when it indulges in simple absurdity. A teen-scare segment about ‘toping parties—teenagers one-upping each other in enriching uranium—has more potential laughs than another take on media short-sightedness. Similarly, sending an autistic reporter to cover a teenager’s funeral offers a new way of parodying formulaic responses to tragedy. The autistic reporter doesn’t understand the social conventions making this particular death newsworthy.
My favorite ONN segment, though, succeeds not by amplifying television news tropes, but by reversing them. A short (perfect length) ad reminds viewers to consider watching Concurrence Round Table, a panel show of people who always strenuously agree. “How can someone so handsome also make such cogent remarks?” asks one awed panelist of another. How, indeed.