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Monthly Archives: May 2013

Some of the cast from The Onion’s new television effort, “Onion News Empire”

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. 

(for my final column, I decide to discuss  topic that concerns me deeply: trains.)

“Inter-city rail in North America is often far below the standards of other developed nations. In many parts of the continent, notably those outside of the Eastern Seaboard and select other hubs, rail service simply isn’t a competitive alternative to driving or flying. The Montreal-New York corridor, spanning two major metropolitan areas across a distance of 381 miles, is an excellent case study of the current issues with rail services across North America, and brings to light some potential solutions. Evidence of the problems is not hard to find—the train currently takes almost 11 hours (when on schedule), substantially longer than taking the bus or driving.”

Read the rest here: http://mcgilltribune.com/useful-at-a-better-speed/

(In which I discuss how social media has shaped our view of public opinion)

“With the rise of social networking as a viable medium for debate, political messaging has changed the way we view public opinion. Companies, for example, have strategies for increasing “engagement” and “brand awareness” on social networks, and media organizations often troll Facebook and Twitter for everything from sources to story reaction. Lost in all of this is a realistic evaluation of exactly who is online, commenting and tweeting their reactions to the news.”

Read more here: http://mcgilltribune.com/understanding-the-role-of-social-media/

(in which I discuss how a university administration should relate to students)

“McGill University, like all universities, has an administrative superstructure and an academic structure overlaid one on the other. As with many universities, this superstructure is generally ignored by much of the student body. The spate of recent controversies over the administration and student input, from the recent course cuts to the Provisional Protocol regarding Demonstrations makes this a good time as ever to talk about how our university should be run.”

Read more at: http://mcgilltribune.com/university-governance-students-and-stakeholders/

(In which I look at a set of twin cuts; one to the provincial education budget, and one to McGill’s class catalog)

“At the beginning of last term, I wrote that this year would—hopefully—be free of the sort of acrimonious student politics that characterized 2011-2012 at McGill. Recent events have put the lie to that hope. While much of the attention on campus is currently centered around The Daily’s fee referendum, a more important set of controversies goes directly to what sort of education we will have as this university moves forward.”

You can read further here: http://mcgilltribune.com/cuts-and-an-inconsequential-conversation/

The piece triggered yet another angry letter to the paper from a campus columnist who does not need to be named in this forum. However, you can read what he had to say here: http://mcgilltribune.com/re-cuts-and-an-inconsequential-conversation-jan-29/

The further controversy the piece triggered led to an interview with TVMcGill, which you can see in the second portion of this video: http://www.tvmcgill.com/2013/03/29/tvm-reads-the-paper/

(In which I discuss why university divestment programs are a bad idea)

“A large part of the difference in the policy prescriptions that we see from the Left and Right can be attributed to the logic they apply to political and policy problems. In terms of social issues, we see that those on the Right tend to frame problems within an absolutist moral framework, and anything that falls short of this standard is vigorously opposed.

[…]

Ironically, when we shift to environmental issues, we can see the more absolute moral framework being applied by left-wing activists.”

Read more at: http://mcgilltribune.com/divest-what-the-flawed-thinking-behind-university-divestment/

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