Vice debuts tonight on HBO at 11 p.m. Eastern.
When Vice magazine first launched in 1994 as the Voice Of Montreal, it was funded in part by the province’s government and served—at least in theory—as a community service for the population that read it. Fast forward 10-odd years to the early 2000s and most people who knew about Vice magazine—and you had to be in the know to know about Vice—were into it for its cutting humor, sexualized photography, and commitment to stories about self-surgery, awkward sex, and child soldiers. In more recent years, though, Vice has shifted its focus away from shit pics and toward those harder stories of global atrocities and anomalies. Where its readership had once been shocked by Lesley Arfin’s Dear Diary column, now they could be appalled by what was going on in Pakistan or Angola.
Now, skeptics could say that Vice maybe made the move to slightly more “legit” content because it had become a parody of itself or because it had influenced too many people, leaving its pictorials and stories looking too similar to what was readily available in American Apparel ads, on Girls (which, until recently, Arfin wrote for), or on LiveLeak. Or maybe the serious stuff was just easier to sell, especially since Vice had birthed AdVice, its sales arm that had its the PBR-drinking youth of America in a headlock. For the sake of argument, though, let’s say Vice switched to more hard-hitting and worldly content because it was the more responsible thing to do or because that’s what its audiences really responded to as they grew older, smarter, and more mature.
Ultimately, that serious stuff is what got Vice noticed, too. The company’s documentaries on North Korean leaders or music in Mauritania are what landed its YouTube page a million subscribers, and what made the serious news media sit back and take notice. Still, when David Carr from The New York Times visited the Vice offices in the excellent documentary Page One, he wasn’t exactly impressed with their approach, essentially calling the company a bunch of Johnny-Come-Latelies to the global atrocity game.
And Carr was right. Serious journalists had been in Pakistan, Angola, and North Korea for years, so what made Vice think that because it sent some tattooed kids wearing jeans to a war torn area that it was reporting serious news and not just promoting “what the fuck” tourism. With Vice’s new HBO series, also called Vice, that question looms large and is never really answered.
Hosted by Shane Smith, each episode of the Vice TV series is made up of two 10-15 minute reports into different scenes that the company thinks exemplifies the “absurdity of the modern condition.” In the first two episodes, the show investigates the dangerous Kashmir region of India and Pakistan, helps four women escape North Korea, talks to child soldiers the Taliban has recruited to carry bombs for them, and ridden in a bulletproof government convoy in the Philippines, where more politicians are assassinated than anywhere else.
As one would imagine, all four of those situations make for compelling stories and offer a glimpse at just how absurd some of life is. Whether all of these things are purely modern conditions, well, that’s a stretch, considering there’s been fighting in Kashmir for years and years, and North Korea certainly hasn’t been a picnic for a while now, but for those of us who are sitting at home, looking at iPhones in our totally safe homes, yes, these lives seem a little—absurd’s not the word here—insane, maybe? Incredibly different than ours? And that doesn’t make them bad, per se. Children strapped with bombs are bad and paying $10,000 to a pimp to get a North Korean girl out of Chinese sex slavery is bad, but these cultures aren’t “bad.” The way most people live in these cultures isn’t bad. It’s just different.
That’s probably not what most people watching the show will think, unfortunately, but that’s not Vice’s fault. They just present the stories, though the facts are a bit underpinned with some quick-cut artiness and a “gritty, authentic nature” to these kids strapped with homemade guns in third-world countries that audiences might, unfortunately, think is kind of awesome looking. That probably could have been framed better, and to Vice’s discredit, some of the reporting voice-overs are a little heavy handed. For instance, at one point, Smith, Canadian accent intact, wondrously muses about how, in “our 21st century,” there are “children used as transportation devices for dynamite,” and while yes, that’s true, our 21st century standards certainly aren’t the same as the rest of the world’s, whether we like it or not. Still, the idea is there: Why aren’t we doing more about this?
That question is where Vice, the show, really falters. Not unlike a lot of other news programs, Vice doesn’t really offer solutions or judgments about how to help these children or refugees or how to make the Kashmir border better. On other news shows, though—Vice partner station CNN, for example—they’d have a reporter stationed there and constantly reporting (or at least they would have before newsrooms were basically desiccated, but that’s another story.) They’d do more than one 12-minute story on just how fucked up something is before flying away, saying “whoa, man. Can’t believe we did that.” Whether or not CNN’s multiple stories would get viewers at home all riled up is still hard to say, but the coverage, ideally, would be different and the audience more receptive.
Then again, maybe Vice’s audience is full of difference-makers. 2012’s anti-Kony quest got a bunch of well-off young people moving, and now there’s a $5 million bounty on that scumbag’s head. If Vice’s show manages to get even a few politically inactive people riled up or a few uninformed people learned, well, then, it can’t be all bad.