Talk about a tale of two half-hours. IFC introduces “Onion News Network” — a delightfully deadpan parody of cable news, capitalizing on the Web-based franchise — and immediately follows that with “Portlandia,” a vanity project from “Saturday Night Live’s” Fred Armisen that plays like an awful night at the Groundlings, or worse, a collection of the most uninspired sketches from “SNL’s” final half-hour. Actually, juxtaposing the two offers a stark lesson, albeit unwittingly, in the not-so-fine line between intelligent satire and smug, irritating self-indulgence.
As with “Onion SportsDome,” which launched recently on Comedy Central, “ONN” is a take-no-prisoners look at the absurdities of news coverage. Not everything works equally, but the best bits range from painfully clever (a white girl being tried as an African-American man) to surreally wacky (witness the headline “Suri Cruise Targeted by Yet Another Assassin From Future”).
Anchored by Brooke Alvarez (actually Suzanne Sena, who seems to be channeling Fox News’ Megyn Kelly), the half-hour shrewdly zeroes in on news quirks, like the obsession with idiots who put themselves in jeopardy; or anchors hyperventilating over the risk posed by bad weather (in this case, really just light snow flurries).
Admittedly, “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” already have this terrain pretty well covered, but given how rare good satire is, there’s always room for more.
By contrast, “Portlandia” is further proof not everyone deserves a sketch comedy showcase — especially when the premise cuts no deeper than vignettes inspired by the wheat-germy, hippie-ish environs of Portland, Ore.
Lorne Michaels is credited as exec producer, but Armisen and his co-creators Carrie Brownstein and Jonathan Krisel seem to have been allowed to roam the Northwest free (the show was shot in and around Portland, clearly on a shoestring budget), with little parental supervision.
Unfortunately, they’re too enamored with what amounts to an array of tiresome characters — feminist bookstore owners, an angry bike messenger, bird lovers, a couple who become irate when someone leaves an unattended dog leashed outside a cafe. And even celebrity cameos (a la Kyle MacLachlan, who appears as the mayor) can’t help them.
“If the Titanic was sinking right there would you just ignore it?” the couple indignantly asks a restaurant patron regarding the dog.
In that respect, watching “Onion News Network” descend into the abyss of “Portlandia” did provide motivation to get involved — if only by lunging for the remote.