3:48pm

Fri January 21, 2011
Monkey See

'Onion News Network': A Highly Successful Debut For The Fakest Of Fake News

This has been a big January for The Onion and its video arm. If you read my review of Comedy Central's Onion Sportsdome, you know that it didn't strike me as entirely successful. On the other hand, IFC's Onion News Network, which premieres tonight at 10:00 p.m. (right before the sketch show Portlandia), is a big success out of the gate.

The biggest single reason is the performance of former actual cable news anchor Suzanne Sena as ONN anchor Brooke Alvarez. (Sena has appeared in some of the highly successful online video projects that The Onion has been running for several years.)

Alvarez is smug, mean, heartless, and clearly in the process of driving her colleague (whose job is mostly to run the touch screen) to actual insanity, but most of this is implied in a series of small, brisk exchanges. (At the end of a report, she tells a correspondent, "Thank you, Jane. You know, I have some suits I'm not using anymore, if you want them.") But her response to a viewer who writes in to correct a simple factual error is probably my favorite piece of the pilot episode. Nobody plays a news anchor like a news anchor, but Sena's effortlessly brutal version of the modern television journalist is more than just a dumb, bland newsreader there to recite jokes, which would have been a very easy way to go.

The jokes here hit pretty hard, even for cable: the opening story concerns a pretty white teenager whose crimes are so awful, the judge decides she will be "tried as a black adult." And the joke — and as we talked about with Sportsdome, this is the trick — unfurls from there: her parents' tearful objections, exactly what being tried as a black man will involve (among other things, retroactively being charged with assaulting the arresting officer), and other elaborations on the theme. Rather than being one joke in an echo chamber, it's a bit with a lot of pieces.

It doesn't hurt that there's a nice crawl that's on the screen for parts of the show that tosses out the jokes they don't have anywhere to go with: "Tragic car crash claims local Range Rover," or "Arianna Huffington sweeps annual Arianna Huffington awards."

Some people will find the show in poor taste, just as some find the newspaper in poor taste — a segment about a kidnapped reporter brought me pretty close to the line myself — but it's very encouraging that they're taking some chances with the material. An entirely inoffensive Onion would be no Onion at all.

Not only is Onion News Network a very good show; it's a very good show that could easily have been a very bad show. Busting with jokes, it's the surprisingly rare cross-medium translation that actually adds something to the mix.

And one more thing — if you're currently enduring a bout of winter weather, you might enjoy this as your send-off. (Caution: very, very mild language your workplace might not like.) Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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