'Onion News Empire' Review: Amazon Satire Hits Conservatives, Misses on Story, Characters

Besides Zombieland, which seemed to impress few viewers, Amazon’s Onion News Empire is its second highest-profile pilot based on name recognition and talent on board.

However, this critic is sorry to report that despite Amazon’s innovative way of choosing which pilots expand into full seasons, Onion News Empire falls about as flat as the much hyped Zombieland.


Stopping by to lend their acting chops to the pilot are veteran actors William Sadler and Jeffrey Tambor. Also on hand are younger talents like Christopher Masterson (Malcom in the Middle) and Cheyenne Jackson, but despite the cast doing the best they can, this pilot is dead on arrival.

The main issue is tone. Onion attempts to simply inject the same humor it gives in its news reporting to its television project. We are fed various one liners and news reports (a handful attacking conservatives, much like The Onion itself) attempting parody in the pilot episode directed by Todd Strauss Shulson, but we never get real characters with genuine arcs.

Masterson plays a young news reporter just trying to find cutting edge news without taking into account the ideas of ratings or sponsors, Tambor is a veteran news reporter trying to hold onto his top spot, and Sadler plays the manager of all this nonsense.

These characters face various issues, but the script never cares either way about who they actually are. The writing is just trying to peddle quickly through character and story to get to the next sight gag or catchy headline, most of which, unfortunately, aren't funny.

The actors play their parts in super serious fashion, even when they are uttering ridiculous lines.

The only actors that came close to pulling off this particular brand of humor are Tambor and Sadler. However, what kills their performances is the fact that the script never wants to make their characters anything more than stand-ins meant to tell lame jokes and promote The Onion's brand of humor. I’m all for endless sight gags and great one liners, but Empire never gives depth or meaning to any of this wackiness, which is why it fails as a television pilot.

For instance, director David Zucker of Airplane! fame knows how to pull off satire. He understands that at the end of the day he is telling a story, however ridiculous or funny. This is why something like Top Secret! works brilliantly and makes me roll on the floor laughing to this day, while Onion News Empire just sort of flaps around on the floor like a fish out of water.

Alas, Onion readers will care little about the pilot’s shortcomings. What they want, I suspect, is exactly what The Onion serves up every day in its news reporting and that is exactly what this pilot gives. Nothing more. Nothing less.


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