THR Critics Debate: Can Viceland's Shows Stand Out In a Crowded Cable Field?

Viceland Gaycation Ellen Page - H 2016
Screen grab
A number of intriguing shows with some reservations.

THR TV critics Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg hash out which Viceland shows are worth your time — and what Viceland is all about.

Starting this week, the Vice brand is continuing its steady creep toward world domination with the launch of six original shows on something called Viceland. THR television critics Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg watched the six shows and weigh in here on whether they work or not — after trying to figure out a more pressing question...

FienbergWe watched episodes of all six, and I guess the logical first question is: How would you describe Viceland and its brand to the uninitiated?

Goodman: I think Viceland would like to be known as the home of cutting-edge, non-mainstream news, feature and documentary content, or, probably more succinctly, a place that offers perspective you can't get anywhere else. I'm not sure that's entirely valid as a goal or a brand, but there's no lack of earnestness behind it and I was surprised by a lot of what I saw and am feeling perhaps more charitable than I was expecting to.

FienbergDefining its "perspective" is probably what Viceland's challenge will be for people who don't already know Vice in its various pre-existing forms, because like you say, it's a mixture of "earnest" and "we don't have to play by the tonal and aesthetic rules of the mainstream media, because our generation cares not for such things." Alternatively, it's a lot of hipsters with thick glasses nodding interestedly at things outside of their comfort zones. The six shows Viceland is kicking off with are very much about gauntlet-throwing, saying "Here's the Vice version of a travel show" and "Here's the Vice version of a stand-up comedy showcase show" and "Here's the Vice version of a food show." Let's look at them in order of premiere, starting with the Tuesday, March 1, shows, Noisey and Weediquette. What'd you think?

Goodman: Well, Noisey as a site has been around for about five years and I'll be interested to see what it can do in this TV format. The first episode, focusing primarily on Compton/"Bompton" and especially Kendrick Lamar, was a real mixed bag of: on the one hand, trying to "understand" the volatile gang-infested area years after everyone was doing that with the emergence of N.W.A., and on the other, venturing into a sufficient number of side detours to be interesting for the hour. In the end, it seemed the point was to look to Lamar as a unifying factor for Compton, and that was periodically effective. I just wish they had done a deeper dive on Lamar and "How to Pimp a Butterfly," rather than take yet another look at how dangerous Compton is.

Weediquetteconversely, was a more effective vehicle for the Vice "approach." It was a much more coherent look at a topic: the effect marijuana/THC has on cancer, shown through various families who use it (on two very young children and one teenager). I thought it was personal — the thing Vice and thus Viceland on TV likes to do best — but also effectively powerful. It felt immersive in the sense that it was much more than just dropping into a town or a family's life or a situation for some video and then a quick departure. I thought it was a smart look at families who are having surprising success using THC as a cancer treatment that also brought to light the fact that, since marijuana is still a classifiable Federal drug, it has a long road to being clinically studied. There were a lot of nuances to the story and, for me, it was one of the new shows that really stood out.

FienbergI actually appreciated that the Noisey episode was about the context around Kendrick Lamar and the music scene, rather than just focusing on Kendrick, which would have been the MTV News-style approach. The walk through Centennial High School, the former gang members now running a catering company, the various people showing host Zach Goldman their scars or tattoos — that went a longer way toward giving this neighborhood a voice and situating the music as a part of that voice and a product of the voice. And like all of these, Noisey was just beautifully photographed. In all of its incarnations and spinoffs, Vice has gone a long way toward revising what the look of TV news/documentary programming can be.

Weediquette was probably the most conventional-looking of the Viceland shows, though "conventional" is relative when you're talking about Krishna Andavolu discussing medicinal applications of weed and THC for an hour. With this episode, the topic was so provocative — little kids stoned out of their heads, but maybe being cured — that I almost couldn't get a sense for what any other episode of the show could be. I felt like I was taking it seriously, but mostly because of the life-and-death stakes and the very interesting parenting decisions being made — not necessarily because of the host or experts, who I felt were leaving a lot of questions unasked.

How about the Wednesday, March 2, premieres — specifically the question of whether Balls Deep and Gaycation are getting weighed down by titles that seem needlessly glib?

Goodman: Just to circle back on these for a second, based on your impressions, I absolutely felt like I needed (and wanted) to see more Weediquette episodes to get a sense of where it can go from here. But I'm also convinced, based on some really great and continuous reporting from the San Francisco Chronicle on the weed beat, that there are plenty of topics of substance to get into (and I liked Krishna as a host). And when I say I want to see more episodes, I think that's a good sign — because I didn't feel that way about all of them. And while I absolutely was intrigued by the Noisey detours in Compton — particularly the catering company and the guy working the barbershop and being a producer — I thought the other stuff was overly familiar, which is probably not what Viceland is going for.

Moving on to what I think you've accurately pegged as "needlessly glib" titles, Balls Deep left absolutely zero hint of what it is, what it will be or what it's aiming for in the future. I think Thomas Morton is intriguing as a kind of newer version of Ira Glass, and bits of the "Tent Preaching'" episode felt a little like This American Life with a more controlled-snark approach. Ultimately Balls Deep, despite the stupid title, was a pretty effortless half-hour. That said, Pentecostal tent revival folk are probably pretty easy targets — and I got the distinct impression that Balls Deep wanted to say, "Wow, look at these people," but ended up finding a guy in Harvey Perdue who was actually kind of fascinating and, finally, very sweet. I'm not sure I would circle back and watch more of this because it felt ill-defined even if the half hour was, all told, easy to swallow.

I could probably be sold on Gaycation as a travel title if I heard the rejected titles first. Plus, it was the first time I've heard the term "gayborhood," which I quite liked. At first, I thought Ellen Page and best friend Ian Daniel were perhaps a little too timid and unaware (unprepared?) for what they were getting into when they visited Japan to look at its well-hidden but prevalent LBGTQ areas. But it ended up being almost accidentally fascinating. Initially, Page and Daniel seemed to run through the various bars and gathering spots a little too hurriedly and without many very good questions for the people who either ran the establishments or visited them. But they then seemed to get a better sense of what to do (and maybe what the show should be focusing on) as they went. And a number of the situations they talked about were very touching, particularly after they started to grasp the fact that change will come very, very slowly to Japan because so few of the people who are gay or lesbian or transgender actually want to "rock the boat"; the issue is vastly more complicated over there than it is in the U.S. because there's not a very active, vocal and outraged civil rights element. I would definitely watch this again, which was not the feeling I was having in the first 20 minutes. 

Fienberg: I think the language barrier created some of what you're interpreting as lack of preparation or naiveté in the Japan episode of Gaycation, but I also think that's what came closest to validating the fly-by-night nature of the title. They're presented as tourists with a particular interest/curiosity, and the part I found fascinating was watching Page get increasingly frustrated with the fetishizing of superficial aspects of gay culture in Japan. There's a nice arc to the Japan episode, in which they start with those fun and outlandish and surface aspects of gay life and then the second half of the episode is, as you say, much more emotional and in-depth and surprisingly moving in places. With a show like this, there's a certain amount of "Wouldn't it be fun to visit these places with these people?" appeal, and I thought Page and Daniel were amiable companions. And, again, this show looks fantastic. It's interesting that clips from Gaycation have emphasized Page's confrontation with Ted Cruz and other intense and political moments, but the episode they sent to us is this different mixture of moving and strange.

As for Balls Deep, I think it's just a test case to see if the Vice generation, whatever that is, digs intentionally off-putting titles in a way that ordinary TV viewers apparently don't (see Trophy Wife, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Cougar Town, etc.) It's such a silly, in-your-face title for a show that's not that at all. Thomas Morton is like Ira Glass, but he's also like Zach Goldbaum, a kinda bemused, affectedly milquetoast observer. It's a persona, obviously, but the person seems effective in getting outlandish personalities to be comfortable around him. Based on the "Tent Preachin'" episode, Morton seems to be almost the embodiment of the Vice attitude, in that he initially comes across as condescending to his subject, but gradually comes to respect or feel sincerely toward him. It's an initial presentation of ironic distance, followed by enough investigation to, ideally, remove that distance. But then the stupid title reinstates distance. I get it, Viceland. You're all extreme and stuff.

Of course, sometimes it makes sense. The title Balls Deep tells me nothing about the subject, tone or approach of the show. In contrast, F*ck, That's Delicious, which premieres with Flophouse on Thursday, March 3, could probably only be called F*ck, That's Delicious.

Goodman: Yes, and I really liked F*ck, That's Delicious, even though I went into it thinking I probably wouldn't, since I really don't like food shows (I'm the kind of foodie who loves the eating part but cares not about the preparation and fetishization of plate presentation, etc.), Action Bronson is not my go-to pick in the hip-hop arena, and I'm not really into the incessant documentation of stoner culture. And yet, F*ck, That's Delicious was really entertaining, presenting this collection of people as uniquely different than what you'd find most places. Moreover, the gut-instinct, base-level appreciation of the culinary world and flat-out delicious meals of all kinds totally worked. You don't need to know Action Bronson's bona fides as a food scholar to understand and appreciate how much he appreciates what's in front of him. It was far better and a lot more fun than I expected — probably a show I'd be happy to drop into periodically.

On the other hand, I thought Flophouse was by far the worst of the Viceland offerings. It was acutely painful to watch. As someone who actually covered comedy way back when I started and count a number of stand-up comics as friends, I'm a firm believer that not everybody should be in stand-up — and, even more emphatically, that there's a kind of art-schoolish, hipper-than-though attitude among unproven, often young comics that borders on a kind of colossal cluelessness, given that some of them just aren't funny. At best, the material witnessed in Flophouse should be the stuff a good comic probably tests out but ends up not using or refining. But in Flophouse, everybody seemed to think every observation, every joke, every word out of their mouth was somehow worthy of headliner status. It was the least funny half-hour I've had to endure of late, but that could easily be connected to my sense that we have even more unnecessary stand-up comics than we have unnecessary lawyers in this country.

I also wasn't sure whether or not Viceland was presenting Flophouse as the rock-bottom starting spot for wannabe comics, who struggle to make a living in a ruthless business. If so, that makes it marginally more interesting as a travelogue of the profession, as a mini-doc on the travails of making it. But even then, there still was an utter lack of actual humor or inventiveness in this bunch, which made the whole thing feel sad, which I'm pretty sure wasn't the intention. I'd watch a half-hour on new comics struggling to perfect their craft, tripping around from club to club in Los Angeles. But if Flophouse is going to focus on this one house and the comics who stop by because they saw a lighting rig spark up and thus a chance for some stage time — and I'm going to get more of this same level of unfunny — then forget it.

Fienberg: Well, it is called Flophouse, so maybe this is verging on a meta-text about the difficulties and challenges of stand-up? Like back in the day we had Evening at the Improv and other stand-up showcase specials that found up-and-coming comics deep into the audience vetting process, but that's too polished for the Viceland ethos? There are maybe a half-dozen young comics featured in Flophouse and I think I laughed at one piece of smart, refined material, but mostly I was thinking the show could be retitled F*ck, That's Not Funny. But maybe that's the point? This is the bottom rung and not all of these people are going to make it, and by watching these people flail, maybe you appreciate the process that brought us a Patton Oswalt or a Hannibal Buress even more? But I agree completely that this would be more interesting if, in addition to the awful garage stand-up and the slightly horrible glimpses into the squalor of this house, we saw how these fledgling comics are nurturing each other, how they're paying any sort of rent at all, how many open-mic nights they go to in a weekend, etc. Give me more sociology, give me less unrefined amateur comedy material.

Oh, and when you call Flophouse "the least funny half hour" you've had to endure, that's because you didn't have to watch the Fuller House premiere. 

And I'm right there with you on F*ck, That's Delicious. Action Bronson is an enthusiast, and he doesn't pretend to be anything other than that and when this show is at its best, Action and buddies Alchemist, Big Body Bes and Meyhem Lauren are like the cast of Entourage (only you actually might want to spend time with them). Unlike you, I'm a foodie who enjoys a good meal and will also happily watch a Top Chef or anything on Food Network, so I might have liked just a bit more food, because the eating is only part of F*ck, That's Delicious. When Action and his buddies are smoking weed and ramping at a bike park, I was much less engaged. Give me concert footage and restaurant visits and this is a show I could come back to if I ever figure out where Viceland is on my dial.