Having just seen a preview of Vice, the eponymous magazine-turned-media-empire’s new TV show for HBO, I’ll say this much: there’s some truly kick-ass footage from North Korea.
It involves Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong Un, and was filmed during that “basketball diplomacy” incident in Pyongyang that made headlines a month ago. Seeing the elusive and murderous ruler of this renegade state in handheld hi-def, rather than the choreographed scenes usually disgorged by official North Korean media, is a truly jarring experience—a bit like encountering a rare species in the wild that you’ve gotten used to seeing only in zoos. Meanwhile, on court, members of the Harlem Globetrotters happily go about their dunking and fancy dribbling. I’m pretty sure you won’t see shit like this anywhere else on TV.
Incredibly, the whole sequence of events was organized by Vice. If its new series, which premieres tonight, shows us anything about this unlikely media juggernaut and the guys behind it, it’s how clueless they are in some respects and how totally savvy they are in others. Turns out they knew Kim was a longtime Chicago Bulls fan, used contacts in China to woo the North Korean authorities with strategic gifts of basketball equipment, and paid Rodman and the Globetrotters to join the junket. Now that’s how you wag the dog.
Through its TV arm, VBS, Vice has been producing video “Travel Guides” to all kinds of extreme places in recent years. They’re all pretty fun to watch, but of the ones I’ve seen, the material from North Korea (the nugget of Kim-Rodman gold being only the latest example) is the best. The place is inherently, morbidly fascinating, but there’s also something about the perverse formality of the culture, the tragedy of this forced universal submission to a god-like but ultimately absurd authority, that makes the Vice team’s wide-eyed irreverence (“OK, I’ve come to Crazy Land,” presenter Shane Smith declares) seem truly vital, a voice of bugged-out sanity in an insane world.
At the same time, many of Vice‘s visits to the nastier corners of the world are nowhere near as audacious or game-changing as their marketers are making them out to be. Even to call this stuff parachute journalism would be a stretch. ‘Journo-tourism,’ as the The Washington Post is calling it, seems nearer to the mark.
And yet Vice, with typical chest-thumping, seems to believe it’s doing so much more with its latest project. I was persuaded this is the case during the post-screening Q&A, when one of the show’s correspondents, Thomas Morton, casually referred to the camera crews that go into conflict zones first—that is, who provide Vice with much of its stock footage—as “dipshits.”
It’s moments like this, of stupid contrarian posturing, that make it easy to call Vice out. Recall the episode in the 2011 documentary Page One, during which the same attitude deservedly got Vice ripped a new one. Co-founder Shane Smith, while being interviewed with Times veteran David Carr, suggests that Vice was covering filth and violence in the West African hellhole that is Liberia and that Carr’s paper wasn’t. Carr quickly corrects him: “Before you ever went there, we’ve had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide. Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and looked at some poop…”
To their credit, Smith (in Afghanistan) and fellow correspondent Ryan Duffy (in the Philippines and North Korea) do allow some genuine realizations to cut through the bro-ish swagger. Still, the show’s treatment of scary and agonizing subjects tends to comes up short—not because our on-camera guides to these torn-up lands are indifferent to the situations they encounter, but because they can’t bring themselves to go that deeply into them.
It’s partly an issue of vocabulary. I’m not saying Morton, in his segment about North Korean refugees, needs to take on the doomsday tones of Werner Herzog. But he could describe the horrors of human trafficking as something other than “sketchy.”
It’s interesting, seeing this stunted and unsure way of addressing the world applied to something resembling investigative journalism, and a minority of the show’s interview subjects might even find it appealing. Morton claimed his boyish looks are “disarming,” making for encounters that come across as “hang sessions” rather than conventional interviews. He’s just, you know, chillin’ with a North Korean defector who faces potential execution or life imprisonment and is just realizing she may never see her family again. As much as I generally enjoy watching Smith, he’s obviously way out of his element trying to get an immovable Taliban leader to talk about suicide bombing.
Once shit gets real, you realize, there are serious limits to the show’s hipster-inflected communication tools. These self-consciously entertaining guides can lead us toward the darkness, and the show can run any number of gruesome clips that CNN won’t, but Vice is poorly equipped to escort us much further than that. (“Reminds me of taking the L train to work,” Smith jokes in an old VBS episode while riding the subway in Pyongyang.) Getting at, or even near, the truth behind these stories requires an ability to immerse and connect—and with their shortage of reference points and their cameras turned on themselves half the time, I’m not sure either is a Vice priority.
But Vice shows no shortage of loyalty to its customer, who expects stories to be delivered with a certain attitude. This is the younger demographic CNN was courting when it partnered with Vice a few years ago, and undoubtedly the one HBO is hoping to tap into as well.
Personally, I think Vice is better off not trying to compete with legit war hot-zone correspondents like CJ Chivers, the Times journalist and former U.S. Marine who files taut documentary dispatches like this one, from Syria. Their true niche is the more offbeat stuff—even if, as with Rodman in North Korea, it’s stuff that Vice has staged using its own impressive resources.
But I doubt the show, which has foreign-relations pro Fareed Zakaria on board as a consultant, will shy away trying to compete with the big boys. The Vice team seems to approach these stories as though they are the first to tell them. It’s not true, in most cases. Nor is it the way that a lot of traditional reporters think—but it’s totally the way an image-oriented global brand does. Vice, which says it receives thousands of pitches a week from contributors in 34 countries, isn’t really discovering stories. It’s rebranding them.
Of course, you could argue that big media companies have always thought that way, to an extent at least. And is the Vice touch really that bad a thing? Thanks to it, a host of global phenomena—some urgent, others just weird and interesting—are about to imprint themselves on the distracted brains of Western viewers. It’s hard to argue with that. I just hope we can kiss the L-train references goodbye.