When you first lay eyes on cable-news anchor Brooke Alvarez, you may suspect you've seen her somewhere before. Brisk, blond and vulpine, she's the picture of a dozen beautiful and terrifying news readers familiar from Fox News and elsewhere. Alvarez tears into her teleprompter copy like an eagle skeletonizing its kill; as techno-martial music plays and graphics swarm about her, she declares, "You've just been cleared to enter ... the FactZone!"
The anchor of the fictional newscast FactZone with Brooke Alvarez on the IFC Channel's Onion News Network is played by Suzanne Sena, who so effectively nails the mannerisms of a cable-news anchor because she was one, for Fox. The casting choice is a brilliant meta-joke: the philosophy behind this TV spin-off from the Peabody Award-winning satirists at the Onion is that 24-hour news is itself a kind of performance. Which makes it a rich subject and even more so than the newspapers that the Onion has long spoofed a tough one. It didn't take a comedy writer, after all, to give us cable-news shows hosted by a former governor disgraced in a sex scandal and by a doomsday prophet given to on-air weeping. Is it possible to make cable news funnier than it already is?
There's no lack of trying or lack of audience. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert offer a solid hour of media satire nightly, and the Onion's other brand extension, the sports-TV parody Onion SportsDome, recently launched on Comedy Central. But there's more than one way to spoof a news medium. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are both personality-driven; Stewart is our exasperated guide through the excesses of hype and politics, while Colbert performs as a recognizably comic fake pundit. Both shows rely on a personal connection that is as assuring as it is acerbic: the world may be crazy, they say, but at least someone else sees it too.
ONN is darker and more deadpan, an immersive satire that, much like the Onion's Web and print editions, skewers the medium's form above all. It's like a technically impeccable music-parody band: there's almost no distinguishing it from the original until you listen to the lyrics for instance, a story about a white teen girl accused of a stabbing who is ordered "to be tried as a black adult." ("The court has directed the local media to assume she's guilty.")
Because ONN is taped in advance, it can't take on current events as readily as Stewart or Colbert can. Its real subject is the heated language of cable news, which it mimics as well as the Onion does poker-faced AP wire-service style. ONN is a relentless half-hour of bludgeoning graphics, hyperbole (a winter-storm report is captioned "Snowlocaust") and anxiety. The show's slogan says it all: "News without mercy."
Unlike Colbert's parody, broadly based on Bill O'Reilly, ONN's isn't specific. There's a little of Fox's burnished aggression, a little of CNN's high-gloss dispassion and HLN's high-speed news buffet, even a nod to MSNBC's ubiquitous prison documentaries. There are clips from other shows on the fictional ONN network, like the haranguing, Nancy Grace-esque Cross Examination with Shelby Cross and the insipid morning show Today Now! It's not so much a spoof of a single network as of the cable-news gestalt of agitation and non sequitur. Maybe the best compliment you can pay ONN is that you can almost feel your blood pressure rise as you watch.
The early episodes share the strengths and weaknesses of the classic Onion, in which the highlight of a story is usually a single, pitch-perfect headline. Some sketches drag on TV, unlike online, you can't skim and the funniest bits are often in the throwaway graphics and background visuals. (For instance, a Sarah Palin "Choose Your Own Presidency Adventure," purportedly produced by Palin's office, flashes onscreen, "'Why stop at a Canadian border wall?' Sarah asked. 'We should have an eastern and a western border wall too.'")
ONN's bigger problem may be that cable networks earnest as they can be when grave news breaks already use the rhythms and devices of comedy. Keith Olbermann delivers zingers when he's not delivering special comments, and Glenn Beck uses tropes right out of morning-zoo radio (where he started out). HLN hired comic Joy Behar to host a talk show; CNN's replacement for Larry King, Piers Morgan, proved his chops not just in newspapers but on America's Got Talent and Celebrity Apprentice. (SportsDome has a similar challenge in sending up SportsCenter-style shows, which are 50% comedy and 40% catchphrases to begin with.)
Walking that line between reality and comedy and showing where it disappears altogether may be ONN's biggest joke and best service. But it will also be a challenge to sustain. The Onion headline for its own foray into TV might be "Satirists demand that target medium stop parodying itself."