One of the interesting trends of the past few years involves a sort of democratizing of art and culture, whether it be in the form of blogs, podcasts, youtube, whatever. It is just a lot easier to produce content, even if the same media oligopoly still exists on a large level. The same dreck that gets lapped up by major record labels, studios and whatnot still hold – indeed witness a show like Two and a Half Men being the top rated sitcom on TV BEFORE Charlie Sheen decided to do whatever the hell it is he is doing. But it is easier to find nooks and crannies for a consumer – and it feels like producers of niche entertainment can find niche audiences easier. As Bill Simmons in his podcast noted, the idea that a channel could take reruns of The Larry Sanders Show and Freaks and Geeks and other stuff for people who like critically acclaimed stuff – and subsist on that entirely – is kind of amazing. After all, Bravo tried it for years until it transitioned into a place for botox-laden housewives and reality television contestants to cavort. But indeed IFC has done just that – obtaining many of these terrific properties that are destined to have a small loyal following.
Within this lineup, The Onion News Network is perfect – a brilliant critique of television cable news which takes up some of the ground that The Daily Show once did before it started inexorably creeping towards being the type of show that it was lampooning. In its 2011 form, Jon Stewart’s show these days seems to be focused on making fun of the content of news programs and the stupid things politicans say. By contrast, The Onion News Network focuses on not just content but style – creating a set and look so convincing, that it could very easily be The Situation Room without much stretching at all. Like The Colbert Report, the entire production FEELS like a real program – and then it stuffs itself with ridiculousness.
As mentioned above, the star of the show is the set. The Onion lovingly borrows all of the staples of CNN. We see the large video screen like the one Wolf Blitzer uses, there is overpopulated panel of experts with their laptops (so they can pretend they are actually working). Manning the host’s position is Brooke Alvarez – who looks a little like Rita Cosby – and she is expert at speaking with that sort of “I’m Brooke Alvarez and you’re not” smug self importance that make individuals like Blitzer or Lawrence O’Donnell so creepy. In the episode I caught, they covered a summit meeting between Washington and Real America. The satirical point of the story itelf is straightforward and well played, but what elevates it is the toss back and forth from the studio to the “remote location”. The show looks and sounds right. Just like CNN, the screen also contains the headline, and the crawl that seems to specialize in showing only the most disposable of news items. Other stories of course are very much in The Onion tradition – absurd but presented without a wink. This is good satire, the sort of thing that actual CNN correspondents and Gloria Borger types might not fully appreciate as their empty headed bleatings go on uninterrupted.