Since its inception as a government-funded rag meant to promote community service called Voice of Montreal, Vice magazine has endured almost 20 years at the cutting edge of pop culture by changing with the times. The founders dropped the "o" and then the Canadianness, expanding the publication into one of the cornerstones of hipster culture. Before being in the periodicals business became such a dire place, Vice was already expanding into music and film ("Heavy Metal in Baghdad," "White Lightnin'" and the upcoming "Reincarnated") as well as, perhaps most successfully, online video via first the Spike Jonze-led VBS.tv and now YouTube.
More importantly, Vice has gotten serious, which is why its new, sort of grown-up HBO show, premiering tonight, April 5, at 11pm, exists. Over the last few years, the company has expanded into a kind of international journalism-meets-adventure tourism that was first laid out in a web series called "Vice Guide to Travel" and now, in half-hour news form, will bring together two stories exploring, as host and Vice co-founded Shane Smith puts it, the "absurdities of the human condition." The first episode travels to Maguindanao in the Philippines to look at election violence, then to Kabul to examine an epidemic of child suicide bombers. The second follows North Korean defectors as they're smuggled to Thailand where they'll be able to apply for refugee status, then journeys to the Line of Control between India and Pakistan in Kashmir.
The show's approach to these ongoing international stories is both exasperating and valuable. As Smith or another Vice staffer travels through Afghanistan or Mindanao, talking to a Filipino manufacturer of illegal guns or a North Korean woman who was sold into sex trafficking when she escaped into China, the irreplaceable worth of on-the-ground reporting (something that's starting to feel like a luxury for shrinking news outlets) is evident. The premiere episode offers up shots of a camp full of armed child soldiers recruited by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement ("they think that war is just like a film," someone observes) and an interview with a painfully young failed suicide bomber who says he was told at his madrasa that this was the way to paradise, as he admits he doesn't understand much about the actual Quran. "Vice" is on HBO, which allows it to unapologetically showcase footage of, say, what a bombing really looks like, including a head lying on the pavement. Traditional TV news doesn't do this, and doesn't take some of the chances "Vice" is willing to.
But the "Vice" approach to reporting, the immersion journalism its touted as part of its brand, is also infuriatingly self-regarding, each segment informed as much by a sense of "look at us doing this crazy thing" as it is the story being investigated. The North Korea sequence, for instance, doesn't gain anything from sending its Vice reporter along with its escaping women in the dark through Laos to the Thai border, except the floated possibility that he could end up in a jail while the refugees would be sent back to darker fates in their homeland. The part of that trip we'd really want to see has already taken place, and involved how she got out of North Korea in the first place.
"If you want, at your own risk, you can go," a Filipino army colonel tells another reporter of the BIFM camps. He demurs jokingly and then, of course, goes anyway, but the show allows those startling and surely hard-won glimpses of teenagers holding rocket launchers to sit without further context. Where do the kids come from? How's the group funded and what's the legacy of separatism in the area, to which it seems to belong? How did they negotiate getting cameras to the camp and what did the group spokesperson have to say, since they clearly agreed to and were interested in media coverage?
Nothing. Just children with guns. 15 minutes might not be enough to untangle a complicated political reality, and anyway the folks behind "Vice" would probably suggest that the goal of the show is to prompt audiences to look deeper into these stories, to spark awareness and curiosity. But that makes the series a better example of supplementary material than of stand-alone reporting, an outlet that presents the promising possibility of bringing the attention of previously uninterested viewers to new international issues, but that verges on gawking at how insanely troubled life is elsewhere before heading home to drink a PBR and compare premium denim options online.