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Is the Onion News Network Toothless Satire?

The Onion’s new news show parodies politics in the spirit of Colbert and Stewart, while seemingly trying to stay apolitical.
 
 
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Over the past decade, spoofing the news has become the new meta-currency of both comedy and social commentary. Maybe it was because, during the W administration, the line between politics, presentation and nonstop yucks became irrelevant. And yes, this was probably a bad thing.

At this point, The Daily Show's nightly satire serves as many people’s primary source of news; The Colbert Report so adroitly spoofed the rabid right that young conservatives have sworn its host was one of them. Then came Glenn Beck, who turned self-parody into a new kind of defense mechanism. The news is no longer about the news; whether or not it realizes it, broadcast journalism is now as much about itself as its subject matter.

Now, we have the Onion News Network, which valiantly attempts to attack only the medium of cable news, with little interest in the ideology. The question is, why make a show about apolitical window dressing when all news is political? When Stewart and Colbert put on their "Call to Sanity" rally, which seemed to spoof both right and left, reactions ranged from "where’s the beef?" to a lingering dismay -- the notion that even loud claims from the left are, in some essential way, different from O'Reilly, Hannity and Beck. Stewart addressed these criticisms in an interview with Rachel Maddow where he remained polite, if defiant. The Onion News Network is either chasing a ghost, or trying to avoid getting in as deep as Stewart and Colbert have.

Airing weekly on IFC as an expansion of its online video series, the Onion News Network is, like a daily "Restoring Sanity" rally -- a critique of some all-encompassing media, shrouded in satire, wackiness, and Colbert-like dissimulation. Anchored by the blond, blue-eyed "egomaniac" Brooke Alvarez, it intersperses take-offs on cable news standbys (the panel, the needless interactive screen) with on-the-scene reporting that recalls the middle section of any Daily Show episode.

Some of ONN is very funny, such as the first episode's "Teenage White Girl To Be Tried As Three-Hundred Pound Black Man" bit. Others, like the ongoing storyline of a reporter who badly needs a makeup artist before faux Islamist radicals slit her throat on camera, strain to make a point that hardly needs making: Today's broadcasters are often prima donnas, celebrities, rather than journalists. That could be the baseline for a program, but not the basis for a joke—much less one that spans two episodes. On the other hand, the Terminator-like timetraveling assassins out to get Suri Cruise are almost too absurd to fit into a show about today's media climate. If anything, they belong in the original Onion publication, and probably work best as a side-splitting headline.

In fact, much of the show seems best-suited to this medium -- the timeworn newspaper headline joke the Onion’s perfected over 20-plus years. As if to aggravate (or acknowledge) this point, the program features a crawler that, at any given moment, is funnier than whatever the conceit being dragged out on-camera. Sometimes you wonder if the writers wouldn't have been better served by simply starting up their own dedicated Twitter feed. Maybe the evolution of the Onion as fake news should have been in the direction of compression (headlines only) rather than expansion (often dispensable articles give way to high-gloss television).

If there is a real-life target for ONN, it’s CNN, which is certainly what the title suggests. CNN is decidedly middle-of-the-road, with a hodgepodge of views represented on something resembling a level playing field. It’s also colossally empty, stupid, and barely relevant to the way this country consumes the news. CNN stands for nothing but over-produced segments and camera-friendly personalities. The second episode of ONN centers on a storm of epic proportions, including the frantic government efforts to keep New Orleans safe in the event of a flurry. We get it—the news is dumb. Now what? No one claims CNN as their own—its ratings have been in decline, as MSNBC and Fox get more and more tendentious. To produce a show that parodies this is low-hanging fruit, and frankly not provocative enough to sustain interest.

There’s a reason why the first half of The Daily Show, which always tackles political topics, and the show’s closing interview, are what makes that program go. The fake investigative journalism that comes in between is, by contrast, forgettable. Like the Stewart-Colbert rally, ONN’s refusal to distinguish between the truly frightening Fox and the ultimately rational, if slick and contentious, MSNBC, is a problem. I know, we're talking about the news industry here, not any one side of the political equation. The justice system, filtered through the media, favors little white girls. That's a safe joke to make. It addresses the issue of women in combat, rather than gays in the military.

ONN feels strangely conservative, in large part because it’s forced to try and mine territory that Stewart, Colbert, and yes, Glenn Beck, haven’t already worked over. The Onion Network also has the problem of following in the footsteps of Stewart and Colbert, both of whom have ripped this medium to pieces as a matter of course. SportsDome, The Onion’s fantastic riff on ESPN’s SportsCenter feels genuinely new. It pushes a self-aware and nominally hip program over the edge, an impulse that has been nagging ESPN viewers for years.

If this program had come along 10 years ago, when Crossfire was the scourge of thinking folks everywhere, it would have been revolutionary. But as we learned this summer, it’s absurd to say that the problems of “the media” are still as simple as CNN’s bluster and plasticity. As long as the Onion News Network stakes out this territory, it's at best, a rehashing of humor that's been tried before (as well as proof that longer isn't always better). At worst, it's stoner comedy that goes after a red herring.

Bethlehem Shoals is a founding member of FreeDarko.com and a co-author of The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. He has also written for GQ, The Nation, Slate, and McSweeney's.