By Dan Snierson
January 22, 2011 at 12:00 PM EST

Image Credit: Karolina Wotjasik/IFC Perhaps you’ve heard that the world of cable network news received a little jolt last night. Nope, we’re not talking about the sudden departure of MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann — but rather the debut of IFC’s Onion News Network. ONN (whose sibling, the SportsCenter-tweaking Onion Sports Dome, premiered on Comedy Central earlier this month) takes aim at cable network news (especially Fox News Channel) with a slick copy of the format that just might fool a few channel-surfing viewers for a moment until they realize that they’ve stumbled into a lion’s den of ludicrousness. And a lion’s share of that credit goes to Fact Zone anchor Brooke Alvarez, who lords over the “news” proceedings with charming, soulless dexterity and carefully crafted condescension. (Alvarez is played to perfection by Suzanne Sena — pictured above — who happens to be a former Fox News Channel anchor.)

ONN doesn’t set out to feast absurdly on topical news like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report do so deftly; it’s all about genre lampoon. The first half-hour newscast was a shiny-snappy assault of farcical, barbed, beyond-politically incorrect stories that sent up everything from race issues to world leaders to celebrities: The opening news segment was about a judge ruling that a white teenager – accused of fatally stabbing a classmate — will be tried as an African-American adult. “Now that Hannah has been ruled black, the court has instructed local media to assume she’s guilty and the police have retroactively charged her with assaulting her arresting officer,” informed Alvarez, cloaking her incendiary lines in innocuous newsreader cadence. “Hannah’s two dozen character witnesses have been replaced by a single crack addict who goes by the name of Skaggs.” (Later in the show, we learned that Hannah was killed by white supremacists, the victim of a hate crime.)

News of Kim Jong Il agreeing to suspend North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for starring in a Batman movie was analyzed from every angle but logical by the Fact Zone’s trio of pundits, known as the First Responders. Winking at the vapidity of broadcast personalities, a segment about a comely ONN reporter who had been kidnapped in Afghanistan ignored the life-and-death stakes and zeroed in on the tragedy of her neglected, untreated hair. “Now we should warn our viewers at home that Susan’s kidnappers have not allowed her access to a hair-and-makeup team, so these images are very disturbing,” cautioned ONN co-host Tucker Hope while manning the “high-definition recon wall” (an expertise that netted him second place at the Touch Screen Awards). Lamented Alvarez: “It is just hard to comprehend how anyone, even a terrorist, could treat a TV personality’s hair that way.” In a segment from ONN’s morning show Today NOW!, the hosts went after a 15-year-old girl who was saved by a firefighter who died in the line of duty, questioning why this girl — her arm still in a sling — wasn’t doing more with her life to honor his. (“Some would say that if you don’t save at least one other life at some point, it’s a net loss.”) Completing the joke, a graphic popped up on screen: “Online poll: Does Melanie seem worth saving to you?” Oh, and speaking of polls, in a story about Sarah Palin’s White House prospects,  we learned that “62 percent of Americans said that even though they don’t support Sarah Palin’s politics, they would consider voting for her out of a perverse desire to see what would happen if she were the President.”

A few segments dragged on too long, such as the small-town Illinois affiliate piece about a “perfectly good tire sitting there behind the Kroeger.” I would’ve appreciated that more as a headline in the print/online edition of the Onion newspaper. The show’s writers did find ways to adapt that quick-hit aesthetic with those sharp, tiny news briefs that stealthily appeared on-screen (“13 Afghanis killed while you were masturbating today”), and I enjoyed the passive-aggressive punchlines that Sena’s Alvarez slipped into her wrap-ups of correspondents’ stories, from an “All right, well thank you, Jane. You know I have some suits I’m not using anymore if you want them” to a “Thank you so much, Madison, for your version of expertise.”

It’s time for a late-breaking bulletin from you, PopWatchers: What did you think of ONN’s debut? Is there room on your DVR for another faux news program?

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