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.
"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.