“A Very Fatal Murder” is exactly what you’d expect from The Onion doing their own version of “Serial” and “S-Town.” Wisely short (the whole thing plays out over the span of about an hour) and never wearing out its welcome, this fictional story follows a small-town murder and one white male podcast host’s attempts to find deeper meaning in teen girl Hayley Price’s death (and y’know, find the killer, too).
Oddly poignant at times, in ways that “host” David Pascall is all too eager to point out, it’s the kind of show that’s aware of the fact that making fun of “Serial” has almost passed its sell-by date. From “Saturday Night Live” to “American Vandal” to actual podcasts like the delightfully dry “Whatever Happened to Pizza at McDonald’s,” turning the true crime genre on its head isn’t exactly a novel concept.
But what the show does extremely well is take aim at the parts of podcasts around the stories themselves. The first episode of “A Very Fatal Murder” has the standard set-up and goofy exaggerations that have filled a bunch of other satires around made-up felonies. The thing that truly sets this one apart is the fake ads before during and after most episodes.
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In true Onion fashion, these riffs start out normal enough. (At this point, you’re almost mandated by law to make a joke about a meal kit delivery service, whether your podcast is sincere or not.) The waning moments of the first episode brings one of the best touches in entire series: a grieving parent is borderline forced into an ad read by Pascall. As she sobs through a testimonial for a box subscription, you can practically hear Pascall’s devilish grin, delighting in the great tape he’s getting.
The series progresses and these joke commercials also venture into other recommended shows in the Onion podcast universe. A history show here, a dating show there, all capturing the “Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts” style that bookends so many of the podcast world’s most popular shows. If there’s one drawback to this rapid-fire approach, it’s that it doesn’t allow “A Very Fatal Murder” to fully mimic the slow, deliberate rhythms that really hammered home the specific “Serial” pathos. But if this is firstly a joke delivery system rather than an ultra-faithful recreation of the NPR house style, “Truly Insane History Facts” makes it all worth it.
When the ads inside the show morph into something slightly more sinister, it’s an example of the kind of podcast jokes that “A Very Fatal Murder” does best. Aside from the details of Hayley’s murder, it’s Pascall’s continual fetishizing of this Middle America town that becomes an even bigger focus. (His inability to fathom carnival games is the inevitable, logical extreme.) But that all-encompassing desire for AUTHENTICITY eventually ties him so closely into the fabric of the town, it starts bleeding over into the fake promos too. The twist in the Episode 4 commercial (complete with the deceptively cheery, bounciness of Spotify ad music) is even better than the jokey bombshell that comes at the end.
TV shows using podcasts as punchlines have taken a similar tack. “You’re the Worst,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Brockmire” have had significant subplots based around characters hosting their own shows, but each have recognized that it’s not enough anymore to just have that be the entire gag. (In regards to the latter of those shows, “Before we leave you, yet one more message from Stamps.com. My goodness…” might have been Hank Azaria’s shining moment in Season 1.) The thing that often puts these side stories over the top is the overriding sense of virtue and entitlement that comes along with having a hit audio show, something baked into Pascall’s DNA.
Like its infinitely successful TV comedy counterpart “American Vandal,” “A Very Fatal Murder” nails its ending. The podcast has too many loopy diversions for the truth of who’s actually responsible for Hayley’s death to have a gut-punch impact. But there’s still an insightful way the final sign-off flips audience’s fascinations with these true crime series in an interesting direction. It’s all seeded in the ad up top, which playfully takes aim at the do-it-from-home trope that runs through so much standard podcast ad copy.
Even with a crusading, self-important character like Pascall steering the wagon, “A Very Fatal Murder” strays toward the surreal end of the Onion style. (To put it in headline terms, this show is more “‘My Work Here Is Done,’ Smiles Contented Bannon Before Bursting Into Millions Of Spores” than “Man At Party Comes Crawling Back To Conversation He Thought He Could Do Better Than.”) Sure, it’s weird that a show investigating a community’s potential complicity in the death of a teenager would take a pause to tout the virtues of a company that just delivers a big pile of sand to your doorstep. But is it that much weirder than taking a break to sell yearlong subscriptions to a website-hosting service? Like Pascall’s claim that “Hayley also excelled at being murdered,” it kinda makes you think.
“A Very Fatal Murder” is available via The Onion and all podcast players.