The satirical news outfit makes another foray into television programming.
The Onion, the satirical newspaper and website, has not had much success in translating its brand of humor to the small screen. Their first two attempts at television, the SportsCenter parody Onion Sportsdome , and the Onion News Network, a spruced up version of satirical cable news segments previously produced in podcast form, both lasted for less than a year. Since then, The Onion seems to have switched to a web-based production model, which has resulted in a number of comedic successes, from the reality TV satire Sex House to the public access homage Lake Dredge Appraisal. The sitcom Onion News Empire is another attempt at scripted comedy, this time produced by the online retailer Amazon.
Onion News Empire, unlike the two previous full-length series, takes a meta approach; instead of applying the satire to imagined cable news or sports stories, the show is set behind the scenes of the ONN newsroom, in a not-so-subtle takeoff of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. Having seen (and liked) The Newsroom, a parody of that show does have some promise. As critics uniformly pointed out, the Sorkin program had a distinct sense of self-importance, with at-times preachy dialogue, an annoying love subplot, and occasionally contrived situations.
The problem with News Empire, however, is that it takes such a promising premise and squanders it with writing that makes pre-teen sitcoms look subtle by comparison. The ONN network is portrayed with generous amounts of hyperbole; instead of just producing cheap, tabloidish reporting on various stories, the staff is shown as not being above completely staging stories for ratings. In one case, they kidnap a girl and then run days of coverage wildly speculating about the motives of the kidnappers. On paper such a hyperbolic portrayal might make sense, but in reality it leads to a glib, predictable brand of humor. Another scene where the head of the network complains to the news director about sagging ratings in a set of absurdly specific demographics (“Half black-half Asian dentists,” etc.) reflects a similar glibness.
The most irritating aspect of the pilot, however, was the main storyline; the rookie reporter fresh from the Midwest affiliate, trying to make a name for himself on the big stage. The naiveté of the character was—as per the satirical conceit—dialed up so much as to make his presence on screen unbearable. Overall, the funniest portions of the episode are the short clips of ONN news programs we see from the control room or TVs in the background. The show’s downfall is that the satire is too obvious, and none of the characters are written deeply enough for me to actually care what happens to them. Even in the context of a satirical program, once it moves out of the realm of pure news parody into semi-dramatic meta news parody, the characters matter.
Onion News Empire, as of this writing, is simply a pilot; it is one of 14 Amazon-commissioned pilots (6 children’s programs and 8 adult comedies) competing for pickup as a full series. The series that will get picked up, sometime later this year, will be chosen based on audience reviews. Some of the other Amazon pilots look promising, and I might review some of the others later this month.
My take: 2.5 out of 5 objects; not actively bad, but an opportunity squandered by over-the-top writing and predictable plot. Some bright moments. General cynicism abundant.