Vice: TV Review

Shane Smith HBO Vice - H 2013
Vice Productions
A raw, in-your-face newsmagazine that gets into the middle of the action from around the globe without having its correspondents play hero while doing it. 

Vice brings its brand of provocative, let’s-go-find-danger journalism to HBO as a half-hour newsmagazine.

Given that Real Time With Bill Maher fills an unscripted need at HBO, it’s probably no surprise that Maher’s POV would make him a producer for the television premiere of Vice, a newsmagazine that has a lot more sharp right angles than anything you’ll see on 48 Hours or Dateline. If you’ve been to the Vice website, you should be familiar with its brand of provocative, let’s-go-find-danger-or-something-weird journalism. It just took awhile for someone to realize this might make an interesting 30 minutes of television.

And Vice , airing at 11 p.m. Fridays beginning April 5, certainly delivers that, even if the stories they cover ultimately don't have a point other than something along the lines of, “Holy shit, this is crazy.”

That’s not to criticize Vice at all because the show, at least when it gets into the big issues (Pakistan vs. India, women trying to flee North Korea, the insanity that is political life in the Philippines -- stories featured in the first two episodes), certainly gives off the vibe that it’s trying a lot harder than its more well-heeled cousins at CNN and the networks.

And much of that perception is true. Yes, you’ll find more tattoos on the Vice correspondents than you will at, say, CBS, but there’s a base earnestness that convinces you pretty quickly that they’re not out in the world trying to play hipster journalist, they’re out in the world trying to enlighten people about how screwed up it is.

Now, that realization certainly won’t come as a shocker to people who are news junkies and troll The New York Times, BBC News, Al Jazeera or blogs across the world. But Vice is in many ways the perfect television vehicle to get information to a younger generation. Why? Because the show isn’t trying to one-up Wolf Blitzer or sit around in blazers talking to members of Congress who want to spin something. It’s on a plane, heading to the Philippines to highlight a staggering number of political assassinations and, along the way, illuminating the gun culture of the country and how the only way to get elected is to have a small army -- literally -- at your disposal.

Vice has two segments per 30-minute episode, and in that one – titled “Assassination Nation” -- it managed to tell a very compelling and surprisingly broad story about the political realities of the country. And it accomplished that without seeming musty or some retread story put in the “news wheel” of every cable channel on the planet.

Part of the appeal is that Vice founder Shane Smith and his small collection of “immersive” reporters are likable, relatable and make this brand of journalism more personable. The success of the show is that those helping tell the stories have zero interest in being seen as some kind of old-school journalistic icons, nor do they seem interested in the more modern Anderson Cooper varietal where there’s an element of heroism involved.

When the Vice reporters are out in the world, they invariably are doing something dangerous and look appropriately afraid of the consequences. Taking out the hero-storyteller angle is long overdue and refreshing, so that’s in Vice’s favor, particularly when it seems like they chose a story merely because it would put them in peril.

When a Philippines military commander spoke of the Muslim “terrorists” in the BIFM who train young kids to kill in remote village bases, he tells a Vice reporter, “You can go at your own risk” -- and the immediate reaction is, “No thanks.”

So yes, there’s that raw, unedited and dangerous feel to the storytelling -- which, if you’re cynical, can seem as constructed as a more polished, edited story that ABC might air -- but the reports are long enough (at least triple what news channels normally devote to most stories) to assuage any fears that there’s posing going on. The Vice team might note that they got a Taliban interview after some backroom negotiations “and quite frankly serious situations where we weren’t allowed to bring our cameras,” but the end result is both informative and revealing without being preening and superficial.

This isn’t look-at-me journalism with a fitted Gap T-shirt. It’s more of a "holy hell, can you believe this?" approach that fights perfectly on a cable channel trying to do something different.