News From the Edge of Ridiculousness: HBO's "Vice"

News From the Edge of Ridiculousness: HBO's "Vice"
Shane Smith (left) in HBO's "Vice"
(VICE Productions)

At a press screening last night for “Vice,” the new HBO investigative journalism series billed by the network as “news from the edge” and produced by the media conglomerate of the same name (non-ironically referred to as “the Time Warner of the streets” by a company executive in a recent New Yorker profile), host Shane Smith, the bearded 41-year-old CEO of Vice Media, told the audience (with the vocal inflections of a kid half his age) about the objective, apolitical stance the show takes toward its subjects, boasting that they do what they’re good at: “telling stories.”

The problem is that Smith’s pronouncement is entirely spurious, made scarier because he and his cohorts on “Vice,” which premieres tonight, seem to believe it – minus their trademark smirk. Created from the ashes of a failed publication called Voice of Montreal in 1994, Vice magazine made its name by pushing the boundaries of taste – bodily fluids and hard drugs were normal subjects – and perfecting an editorial voice that was juvenile and irreverent. In its earliest incarnation, Vice was the anti-magazine, willing to tackle subjects and approaches no other publication would touch.


But there was no meta-commentary on the current-state of modern media present last night. For all the phony rhetoric about “Vice” being outside the news-cycle, a subversive, gonzo twist on traditional foreign reporting, the show is surprisingly mainstream. Smith and company’s opinions are pedestrian and simplistic (after the screening, Smith let it be known that he’s completely against war, in general), their aw-shucks approach to serious topics offensive and trivializing. The only difference between Anderson Cooper and the (all male) hosts on “Vice” is that one wears khakis and a button-up, the others have tattoos and don V-necks.

This is abundantly, almost comically clear in the section of the first episode that features Smith visiting adolescent suicide bombers in Afghanistan. We have shocking footage, meant to grab the viewer; ominous music, conveying serious dramatic heft; a scene in which the reporter cries, because, if you didn’t realize, this is serious stuff; and a knowing voice-over to top off the episode, where Smith eulogizes the modern world and what it has become. “This is our 21st century?” Smith laments. “Where children are used as transportation devices for dynamite?”

Yeah, bro, totally digging your stinging political commentary.

Future episodes of “Vice” visit the Philippines to cover political assassinations, where reporter Ryan Duffy is totally nervous to be in the line of fire, while correspondent Thomas Morton goes along with a group who are secretly escaping North Korea, asking hard-hitting questions like, “What does it feel like to escape North Korea?”

But if “Vice” unabashedly reaches out to younger viewers, and it actually reaches them, can it be such a bad thing? I’d love to think that a bored teenager, flipping through the channels on a Friday night will stop on this show, see a story about the tension-filled border between India and Pakistan, and become interested in the subject. But will that interest ever surpass the sensationalistic presentation of the story?

It’s hard to say, but the chances seem slim. “Vice” pushes the company’s bad-boy image to the forefront, but it’s all surface sheen and manufactured grime, reeking of a boardroom’s idea of how to attract a younger audience and, in turn, more advertising dollars. Can your ideas really be progressive when you’re funded by Time Warner and backed by celebrity hack commentators such as Bill Maher (executive producer) and Fareed Zakaria (consulting producer)? When HBO is footing the bill for a marketing push that has your name plastered on billboards and in subway cars?

But remember, they’re not trying to do anything progressive. They’re just bringing their multi-million dollar corporation-backed film crew into the most impoverished parts of the world, and “telling stories.” And they will be rewarded, most likely, for their “bravery” and their “authenticity.”

And there’s nothing problematic about that, right?