By Caryn James | James on Screens January 20, 2011 at 4:23AM
The Onion’s website promotes its new mock-news show, Onion News Network, with a pitch-perfect skewering of cable blowhards and anchors: the fake network’s stereotypical blonde anchor, Brooke Alvarez, is “Smugger than Keith Olbermann. Louder than Sean Hannity. Prettier than Anderson Cooper.” That ad is also funnier than most of what you’ll find on the half-hour show. (It starts Friday on IFC, 10 ET.)
The Onion, of course, was a pathfinder in news satire so on-target, in print on online, its stories are sometimes mistaken for the real thing. And the series nails the form and characters of vapid news programs. Brooke has the punched-up delivery and brightly colored jackets. And, proving that there’s just a highlighted-hair’s distance between parody and reality, she’s played by Suzanne Sena, who was once an anchor on Fox News. Actually, Brook seems less cable than syndication, with that too-loud, too-false, not-quite-ready-for-the-network presence.
But mocking the form of cable news doesn’t get you very far, even if you do have a guy with a lightning-fast touch screen that he uses for no good reason. Onion News Network’s shows are taped well in advance, so they can’t compete with the topical humor of The Daily Show, The Colbert Report or SNL’s Weekend Update.
Episode 2 (see the problem -- there are episodes) has a story about a blizzard, labeled Snowlocaust, which is causing “major problems for the nation’s idiots.” Not so funny when the name Snowpocalypse was all over the real news a month ago. The Daily Show mocked the use of Snowpocalypse. Onion News Network just echoes it -- or maybe even anticipated it, but either way the result is tamer, less timely satire.
The writers are clever, so some of the generic humor works. When another stereotypical blonde reporter is kidnapped in Kandahar, Onion News reports that she is being inhumanely denied access to hair and makeup. But the show works best with its occasional, glancing hits at genuine politics. A crawl at the bottom of the screen says: “Obama pledges to work closely with those trying to ruin him.” As on CNN, where the actual news sometimes appears on the crawl while the on-air anchors are blathering, some of the best jokes creep on-screen that way.
The first show’s sharpest report is already online. Brook and a political commentator discuss an Onion News poll showing that 62 per cent of voters who do not agree with Sarah Palin’s politics might vote for her for president anyway, “out of a perverse desire to see what would happen.”
Here it is; it’s as good an explanation as any.