Ah, Vice. The once long ago irreverent little zine out of Montreal and has grown into a globe-spanning empire with offices around the world and an online presence that has expanded far beyond their still free glossy monthly magazine. And while they may still be snarked at for their ongoing Dos & Don'ts, stunt-like "reporting" which sometimes is as sophisticated as someone taking drugs and then writing about it (an approach spoofed by Lena Dunham on "Girls") and general tendency to stick to the kind of off-the-cuff, fratboy humor that made their name, if you look closer, they've matured considerably. Like reading Playboy for the articles, skip past the hit bait and land on their video page, and do some digging, and you'll see some real stories tackling the kind of stuff you won't find on any of the major news networks (The Business Of War is a particularly perfect example of Vice's naughty boy aesthetic matching a hard-hitting topic). And they've brought that mix to HBO for "Vice," a "60 Minutes" show for the millenials that definitely offers a different perspective on the world than your usual outlets.
With each episode running a half hour long, "Vice" makes the most of it by presenting two segments per show, which doesn't always work, but certainly highlights their ambition. And in the premier episode they waste no time in establishing two things: you will not see stuff like this anywhere else, and even on hot button topics, they will find a fresh approach. "Assassination Nation" gets the honor of being the first story out of the gate, and it's an undeniably eye-opening look at something that certainly isn't getting much coverage.
Ryan Duffy heads to the Philippines, where there have been 1,200 political assassinations in the last decade (yes, really), to follow Esmael Mangudadatu as he attempts to file his paperwork to run again for Governor. Oh right, the last time he did this? His family and supporters were ambushed and slaughtered by rival factions. So yes, this is a bracing look not only into the incredibly violent Philippine electoral process, but also their gun culture as a whole, in which minor militias have been built up by various politicians and candidates to protect their positions and interests.
But if this seems chaotic, it's nothing compared to what Vice founder Shane Smith finds in Afghanistan with "Killer Kids Of The Taliban." Yes, it's a Vice-y provocative name, but it's also deserved, as Smith probes into the use of children as suicide bombers in the country, many coming from clandestine training camps all over the surrounding countries. It's here that "Vice" flexes its muscle a bit, not only securing interviews with some of the captured young bombers, but also with Syed Mohammad Akbar Agha, one of the leaders of the Army Of Islam. And Smith asks him directly not only about the use of children in suicide missions, but terrorist activity as a whole and how it's justified by the Koran. This is tough, real stuff and easily the best material "Vice" has shown thus far.
In next week's second episode, "Vice" shows that even with great access they can still bungle things. Correspondent and "Dos & Don'ts" book editor (really) Thomas Morton seems ill-equipped to handle "Escape From North Korea," which finds him going on the run with a refugee from the country as she tries to make her way to South Korea and a new life. What could have been a fascinating look into an experience few of us will ever understand or even feel the sheer terror of, Morton's own anxieties become the subject in a segment that really could've been its own half hour (and something "Vice" should considering doing for their meatier topics).
However, things rebound with "World's Most Dangerous Border," with Smith (easily the most comfortable and confident of the correspondents) heading to the border of Pakistan and India, and reaching out to both sides to discuss the high tensions between the two nations. For people who know their history inside and out, this will be nothing new, but as a Dummy's Guide it not only quickly puts decades of strife into a capsule, but Smith digs up just why everyone needs to care about the two nuclear armed sides getting along. Will your New York Times-reading Dad get anything out of it? Probably not with this one, but for the younger generation "Vice" is geared to in general, it will be captivating.
And overall, the blessing and curse of "Vice" is its mission to be approachable and cool. Smith, Duffy and Morton all go as "themselves" to these far flung places, though it can be somewhat obnoxious to see these guys in Lacoste and Fred Perry shirts, walking around developing countries. Guys, it's okay to wear some ugly jeans and cheap t-shirt -- we're here for the stories, not a fashion show. And as noted above with Morton, the non-journalistic credentials of the trio -- which is likely used as another appeal to the whatever generation -- can sometimes see them coming off as unprepared or insensitive. And the need for "Vice" to provoke can be cheap at times, with the lazy use of a plane slamming into the Twin Towers on 9/11 and another I-can't-believe-it's-not-staged shot of a kitten sitting on a table where an underground arms engineer is constructing a gun in the Philippines, smelling of the brand's tendency to dip into easy shock.
But overall, one can't help but commend "Vice." Its mission -- even if filtered through the thumbing-their-nose-at-authority stance (of the multi-millionaire dollar generating) brand -- to stand out from the mainstream and provide substantive, fresh reports from the unlikeliest corners, is worthy of applause. That they actually manage to get it right, albeit with a few bumps and snags that they'll likely iron out as "Vice" continues, is even better. The "60 Minutes" of now? Not really, but certainly a news show that refuses to be boxed in by traditional or acceptable boundaries. [B]
"Vice" airs Friday nights on HBO at 11 p.m.