Xandra Dent knows how to make an impression. Earlier in this season of Newsreaders, the fictional reporter, played by Alison Becker (Parks and Recreation), traveled the world to learn the story behind the iPhone. As she hopped from country to country, the tech-savvy and culturally insensitive character turned up in a wide array of outrageous outfits. A Fruit Ninja cosplay was just the start.
“The character is not very smart,” Becker admits, “but she does know about the tech world.” Becker, who is admittedly not a gamer, said that sometimes she has to ask about the references, like the Fruit Ninja costume. Xandra Dent, however, speaks in internet slang, running through fast-paced sentences crammed with tech-blog lingo. Becker says she’s a send up of G4-style TV reporting. There’s also a little Vice in there for good measure; fictional host Reagan Biscayne makes a reference to this at the end of the segment. It’s first-person reporting gone awry, and tech reporting that tries too hard to appeal to mainstream audiences. Also, it’s not real news.
Newsreaders, which airs Fridays at midnight on Adult Swim, is a parody news show that relishes in the ridiculous. It’s not just the stories that are over-the-top, it’s the presentation. From Becker’s portrayal of Dent, to Beth Dover’s super-serious (and completely clueless) reporter Sadee Deenus, Newsreaders, which is now in its second season, lampoons the myriad ways that non-fiction stories unfold on television. “We’re taking these stories that are absolutely asinine and bonkers, and trying to make them sound hard-hitting,” says Becker. “Which is actually not far off from what real news is doing.”
The art of creating news parodies is a difficult one to master. For years, The Onion has been the benchmark of the genre, its beauty lying not in the absurdity of the stories, but in the way it perfectly parrots the conventions of newspaper journalism. Newsreaders accomplishes much of the same for television. The stories are funny, but they way they’re told is funnier. Both Becker and Dover admit to mimicking the voices in those NPR stories you hear in the car, and that kind of attention to detail shows. Becker’s portrayal of Xandra Dent’s confessional-style reporting makes it all feel almost real. For Dover, it’s her NPR-meets-CNN-meets-local network news delivery. “She likes to think of herself as a hard-hitting newswoman,” says Dover. “But, in actuality, she’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer.”
While Onion-style websites are incredibly common, fake news on the small screen isn’t, and Newsreaders does a fantastic job of filling that void. Because it’s television, there are a few differences in the approach. These correspondents aren’t anonymous. In fact, their personalities often overshadow the story. That’s particularly true with Becker’s character. Xandra’s penchant for GarageBand somehow becomes part of her iPhone report.
The show, created by Childrens Hospital vets Rob Corddry, Jonathan Stern and David Wain, perfectly balances the straight-faced presentation of news with stories that are ludicrous, from dads teaching young sons how to woo the ladies, to a company that comes up with names for bands. “We trick you a little bit into thinking that it’s a real news program at first.” And, sometimes, it works. “People have told me that for the first thirty seconds, they thought it was real,” says Dover. “This is a success, in my eyes.”
Some things have changed, as the show has headed into its second season. The most visible change is the host. Alan Tudyk, who played the beloved Firefly character Wash, portrays host Reagan Biscayne. The show’s former fictional host was Louis LaFonda (Mather Zickel), a character recognizable from Childrens Hospital, and David Wain’s movie The Ten.
Newsreaders has also beefed up its content, with two full stories snuggled into its tiny, quarter-hour time slot. Becker and Dover are only two of the actors turning up as reporters on the series. Ray Wise, Randall Park and others have appeared on the program as well.
With the Newsreaders format, the reporters don’t appear in every episode. This week is Xandra Dent’s turn, when the character goes behind the scenes at a sausage company. Be prepared for a few zany outfits, and lots of inappropriate comments.
Liz Ohanesian writes about pop culture from her base in Los Angeles. For updates, follow her on Twitter or Facebook.