When IFC sent us screeners of the Onion News Network, I thought it would be pointless to review it. As I’ve made clear before, years of devoted Onion reading and watching meant that there was almost no chance I wasn’t going to like this show. However, it only took a few minutes into the first episode for me to realize that, not only did I already know how I’d feel about this show, most of our readers already would too. Really, if you don’t have time to read this review, you can just ask yourself this; If you went on the website right now and watched 20 minutes of ONN shorts, would you enjoy it? If the answer is yes, then you’re going to enjoy this show.
Of course, saying that kind of short changes the new series. As did all the comparisons made to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report when the show was first announced, with many asking why we needed another fake news show. What makes this one so different than those was perfectly captured at a recent press panel given for the upcoming premiere in which all of the actors, creators, and moderator Jonathan Alter spent the entire time staying in character, from the moment Executive Producer Will Graham described the fictional network as having been founded in 1976 to the point where egomaniacal anchor Brooke Alvarez (actually actress Suzanne Sena) entered the room and instantly began passing out signed pictures. Unlike The Daily Show, the new show gives the audience no connection to reality. There is no studio audience laughing and there’s no host shrugging at the silliness going on around him. Even though Stephen Colbert is a master at never letting his “Stephen Colbert” mask slip, there are still guests coming on to play the part of the straight man. It’s this lack of reality that will probably be the most off-putting aspect for some viewers. But, again, if you’ve been weened on the online videos (or the new Comedy Central series Onion Sports Dome), you’ll be fine.
So what makes the IFC show different than the shorts? Why shouldn’t you just watch a bunch of videos as I proposed earlier?
The biggest difference is that the length enables the ability for some jokes to develop throughout episodes and even between episodes. One particularly funny running joke involving Suri Cruise from the premiere through the next couple of shows.
The length also lets the writers play with the characters some more. Obviously all of the regular characters from the web shorts had running jokes and continued characterization. That was made clear by how well the actors could ad lib in character at the panel. But in the show, one character in particular, “touch screen expert” Tucker Hope who’s played by Todd Alan Crain, has a gradually revealed back story that will be hilarious (especially for observant fans of the videos).
This sense of world-building is one of the most fun aspects of the show. Graham also seemed to be intrigued by it. At the panel, I asked him if there would ever be a crossover between ONN and Sports Dome (something he said he’d thought about but hadn’t yet implemented), and he likened the building of the universe around the ONN network and FactZone, the fictional show the series focusses on, to the Marvel and DC universes in comics.
Of course, while that kind of geeky stuff will make a continuity nerd like me love a show, most people will just care if Onion News Network is funny. It is. Very much so. And in that very specific Onion way (pitch-perfect and pitch-black satire). So, if you’ve liked the videos on the website or you just like seeing some of the smartest writers around laying into the big cable news heavyweights (at the panel, Graham thanked ONN’s “rivals” for always making their graphics “swooshier” so as for inspiration), it’s safe to say you’ll find much to like in this show.
Onion News Network premieres tomorrow night at 10pm on IFC. Below is a funny clip from the panel:
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