‘The Onion’s ‘A Very Fatal Murder’ Is a Sly, Pitch-Perfect Parody of Crime Podcasts
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Crime podcasts like Serial are irresistible to satirists by virtue of their popularity and ubiquity alone. Serial in particular is so huge that it transcends the medium that birthed it. Even your aunts and uncles who know nothing about podcasts (heck, this late into the game, they still don’t even know what a podcast even is!) have heard about Serial. Hell, they’ve probably listened to it themselves.
There are popular podcasts (many, unfortunately, hosted by either Joe Rogan or Adam Carolla) and then there’s Serial. The public radio pop culture phenomenon and This American Life spin-off even birthed a fictionalized TV adaptation to be overseen by the high-powered recently fired team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller. So it is not at all surprising that the ace satirists over at The Onion have turned their attention to this lucrative field of podcasting with the Serial parody mini-series A Very Fatal Murder.
The comedy unfolds over eight installments that collectively run about an hour and follow the absurdist podcast investigation of smug New Yorker David Pascall as he travels deep into the heart of flyover country to investigate the insanely download-friendly murder of pretty 17-year-old white girl Hayley Price in quaint, idyllic, endlessly colorful small-town Bluff Springs, Nebraska. Our intrepid journalist is dead set on podcasting super-fame and using the latest technology to produce a viral hit that will, beyond exploiting the public’s enduring fascination with attractive dead white teenaged girls, tap into every journalistic trend and hot topic, particularly regarding big city folks’ exquisitely condescending fascination with the primitive ways of our small-town neighbors, with their tragic dearth of postgraduate degrees and pathetic ignorance when it comes to the complexities of intersectionality and third-wave feminism. To a much lesser degree, Pascall is interested in solving the crime, but that’s very much a secondary concern.
The host is a parody of This American Life’s Ira Glass and Serial’s Sarah Koenig, but he also represents the army of condescending, over-educated hipster fucks who spread out across our great land to try to figure out the curious ways and backwards customs of the non-coastal elites who first, and only, became important to people who matter when their tragic ignorance resulted in the election of Donald Trump. Pascall’s voice is so soothing in that gently narcotizing Ira Glass kind of way, that it can be easy to overlook that he’s an idiot, insane, and something of a low-level sociopath. In an early episode, he has a parent still weeping uncontrollably over the death of their daughter read a sponsor’s ad.
A Very Fatal Murder nails that endlessly imitable public radio cadence, that soothing, hypnotic tone that can make even the details of a comically extreme and excessive murder like the one at the podcast’s core sound incongruously pleasant, just more fodder for the sonorous elitists up-talking into microphones in that perpetually questioning way. A Very Fatal Murder takes the idea of murder podcasts as a makeshift arm of law enforcement, beholden to no one and nothing but the tyranny of download fluctuations, to its comic extreme by having its host actually become the head of police in the small town where he’s gone native with a fury, with the help of the most bracing, audacious time-jump this side of Bratz: The Movie.
In a particularly absurd twist, Pascall becomes both the establishment and the fourth estate angrily questioning the establishment when his role as a journalist doggedly seeking the answer to a decade-old mystery conflicts very directly with his role as the town’s head of police. The host is adept at saying incredibly stupid things that sound smart because they’re delivered in that self-satisfied, self-important, public radio voice so full of unearned self-regard and condescension for anyone who falls outside NPR’s demographic.
A Very Fatal Murder is surprisingly brief for such a high-profile spoof of such a high-profile podcasting milestone. Many episodes last around ten minutes, but the podcast takes an awful lot of twists in the space of about an hour. Besides, that’s what a second season is for.
Sly and pitch-perfect, A Very Fatal Murder is a killer podcast in more ways than one.
Nathan Rabin is a father, the author of 5 books, a columnist and the proprietor, owner, Editor-in-Chief and sole writer for Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place, which can be found at nathanrabin.com.