'Vice News Tonight': TV Review

Shane Smith - H Getty 2016
Credit: Getty / Bobby Bank
Some virtue in this Vice offering.

Vice reimagines the nightly newscast as a televised newsletter for its content.

I watched Monday's premiere of HBO's new Vice News Tonight on my flat-but-bulky 42-inch TV, attached to the sort of six-tuner DVR your grandparents may have told you about. The TV is attached to a wall. The cable box is attached to both the wall and the TV. I'm attached to my couch. In short, I am way more attached to old things and terrestrial media than any ideal Vice News Tonight viewer would be, since the series teased its arrival with promises about all of the connected (as opposed to attached) things I'd be able to experience if I just watched the show on my phone or tablet-related device.

Oh well. Vice News Tonight isn't worried about making Gen-Xers feel ancient. It's all about a new paradigm for news, a paradigm that I assume is much too complicated to be adequately reviewed based off of a single episode, but I exist in an old TV-reviewing paradigm where this is what we do.

The first episode of Vice News Tonight was just fine, boasting an appealing and distinctive structure, a brief standout interview, a couple of little animated segments, some good reporting and more filler than I personally think a 23-minute premiere was probably entitled to.

Dispensing with an anchor desk and a consistent newsreader and blurring the line between segment titles, giant keywords and salient factoids, the news seemed to be divided into topical packets and more to slide by, generally without hierarchy or filter. It's almost like a dating-app approach to the news, except that you can't swipe on your TV.

From the top of the show, headlines went by fast and without commentary or analysis or color. If you want to know more about France demanding an investigation on Aleppo, Mylan reaching an agreement on the EpiPen gouging or student protests in South Africa, you have to Google that yourself (or probably click on a link if you were watching on a connected device), but the assumption is presumably that Vice, with only barely more information than a tweet, lets you know what news there is to explore and then lets you get more depth yourself on what interests you.

And there was more depth on other stories, driven by Vice News reporters and field crews.

The premiere's big sizzle piece was Michael Moynihan's visit to Glenn Beck's ranch in Idaho, in which rather than taking responsibility for the rise of Donald Trump, the recently understated conservative pundit played way-after-the-fact Cassandra and claimed that he warned everybody and nobody would listen. Beck said that he's had moments he almost could consider voting for Hillary Clinton, but only almost, but he's also not voting for Trump. Moynihan and Beck watched Sunday's debate, but only a little of that footage made it onto the air. Like almost everything in Vice News Tonight, what we saw felt like a link we were supposed to click on to watch a full interview, but at least what we got here was good.

I also appreciated Antonia Hylton's piece on prison strikes in Alabama, complete with an interview with a former guard showing off confiscated improvised weapons and an inmate speaking on a purloined cell phone from solitary. Real reporting also came courtesy of Roberto Ferdman, with a piece on a Wells Fargo manager from Washington who discovered manipulations of client accounts as early as 2005 and attempted to contact various bank authorities and was disregarded.

But there also were segments that delivered very little. Evan McMorris-Santoro standing in Pennsylvania with his hands in his pockets looking cold and uncomfortable in proximity to Trump supporters the day after Sunday's debate offered nothing to this broadcast, even if he got great interviews that will be featured tomorrow online. Arielle Duhaime-Ross' summary of how climate change added to Hurricane Matthew's devastation was there in case you had a dinner scheduled tonight with a stubborn old relative, but felt rudimentary. And Michael Kalenderian's "Yesterday on the Internet" segment was an unenthused rehashing of the reactions to the debate that you either saw on Twitter last night or in Buzzfeed lists this morning or percolating through the slower corners of your Facebook feed this afternoon. So much of Vice News Tonight is supposed to be about simulating immediacy, giving the impression of watch news fly by unfiltered and a lot of immediacy is squandered when you have too many dud segments that left me looking to my computer to see what else I could do.

In its best moments, Vice News Tonight felt like a string of little amuse-bouches to whet appetites for full meals available online. In its lesser moments, it felt like Full Frontal or Last Week Tonight without the jokes and, honestly, with less on-air depth. I think there's probably value in Vice News Tonight as almost a newsletter or digest point-of-entry into the absurd amount of content that the Vice empire generates every day. Even though those newsletters feel old-fashioned on the surface, all the cool media kids have their own and it would be just like the forward-thinking Vice to package theirs in the format of an equally old-fashioned newscast. We'll see if Vice News Tonight evolves into more than that.

Executive producers: Shane Smith, Josh Tyrangiel, Madeleine Haeringer
Airs: Weeknights, 7:30 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)