Seventeen years since The Day Today, from tonight on Sky Arts 1 (11pm 26 November) we have a credible follow-up. We’ve had to buy it in from the States: bearing the imprint of The Onion, the spoof-news site with the imposingly high comic standards, Onion News Network is a relentless satire of the insane pace, whizzy touch-screens and rampant editorialising of US TV news.
Your host “in the FactZone” is Brooke Alvarez, a power-suited ice shard whose clipped, semi-cogent patter only lets up for moments of self-congratulation or catty moralising. Imagine Sky News’s Kay Burley, but American.
Alvarez is played by Suzanne Sena, who used to be a real news anchor for Fox News. So she knows how hysterical, agenda-loaded news is presented – as the spoof version of her former colleagues, she’s perfected a double-speed gabble that is always millimetres away from tipping over into gibberish.
Like a proper news programme, ONN covers everything from major disasters to local non-stories, from weather to celebrity. In every subject area, the tropes of modern newsgathering are methodically picked up, amplified and distorted just slightly to make them completely absurd.
This is densely packed, highly intelligent comedy you’ll want to watch for a second or third time. For a start, on first viewing it's almost impossible to follow the main action and keep up with the ticker headlines - eg "Final Chinese girl born"- flashing up in small text at the bottom of the screen.
Sometimes ONN has fairly ordinary, gentle segments that recall the origins of the online spoof newspaper. For instance, there’s this knockabout piece in which a severe snowstorm causes idiots to injure themselves:
Onion News Network often pushes the boundaries of good taste, but almost always with a serious point behind the shocks. A recurring character is Michael Falk, the network’s autistic reporter. Most comedies would stop right there in the ideas meeting and say, no, we can’t do that. But Falk is there to point out how blithe, detached and insensitive news reporting, especially of personal stories, can be.
His character can be problematic. This sketch about an imprisoned fraudster, for example, starts well, with Falk destroying the fake and pointless two-way with Alvarez. But I’m not sure at all about the scene in the prison, where his autism does seem to become the gag.
When Falk is done right, though, he makes for magnificent satire. Watch as he attends the funeral of a murder victim and is not much more inappropriate than a real reporter would be:
Onion Network is full of nice surprises, punctuating the flow of spot-on spoof news. Take this segment, where Brooke Alvarez responds to a viewer who has emailed in to point out a factual error. You’d expect Brooke to take umbrage, but…
Or there’s this sketch, in which two apparently anodyne morning-sofa hosts monster a girl who was rescued by a heroic firefighter. It has strong echoes of The Day Today’s classic “jam festival” sequence, but with an extra edge because of the benign sheen of the production and the sheer thoroughness of the attack:
Just like the Taliban, who have captured one of its reporters, Onion News Network takes no prisoners.