The Internet has laid waste to old media by giving content consumers hundreds of thousands of different places to get content that was previously provided only by old media. Once upon a time, if you were looking for a serious TV newsmagazine, you watched “60 Minutes.” Today, if you are looking for the same material, maybe you watch “60 Minutes” or you read and watch dozens of disparate sources. Oddly, this means that the fragmented “60 Minutes” audience is now available to be catered to by various boutique “60 Minutes.” “Vice,” Vice media’s new newsmagazine series for HBO, is just such a program, a juiced up “60 Minutes” via Williamsburg for people who dig tattoos, adventure and social justice and don’t mind the man so long as he digs the same.
Vice is a many tentacled media company — advertising agency, video channel, website, magazine — that has been heralded, most recently in this week’s New Yorker, for being able to make some cash in the Internet era by nailing its audience, hipster bros with a naughty vibe who like cool stories and alcohol. “Vice” is narrated by the company’s bearded CEO Shane Smith as it sends wan and tattooed reporters who look like the patrons of the new, local dive bar (graffiti in the bathrooms, specials on whiskey and Rolling Rock, but, you know, really first-rate bar food) to dangerous places.
The first episode contains segments on the vast number of political assassinations in the Philippines and the Taliban’s child suicide bombers. The second features stories about the Kashmir and the nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan and a group of North Koreans illegally sneaking out of their country. (The infamous Dennis Rodman in North Korea episode will come later.) In Hunter S. Thompson-style, the patron saint of all things Vice, the "Vice" reporters are part of the story: Smith narrates his distress at meeting the just-teenage boys taught to blow themselves up. Ryan Duffy, riding with a Filipino politician on the same route on which he was almost assassinated a year earlier, confesses his nervousness. A deadpan reporter and camera crew make a passage across the river between Laos and Thailand in the dead of night with four North Koreans illegally on board.
These are all worthy, in-your-face subjects, if not quite given an in-depth treatment. Setting up the India-Pakistan conflict Smith says the two countries “really, really hate each other” before glossing over the history between the two nations. The passage of the North Korean refugees from North Korea, through China to Laos and Thailand and then on to South Korea, is given about 10 minutes, and "Vice" is only with the refugees for a short period. "Vice" is superficial, but it seems almost knowingly so, giving the quick, most adrenalized version of a story to get people interested enough to at least Wikipedia the subject (and, of course, to associate "Vice" with adrenaline).
Despite showing some very gruesome imagery— a real decapitated head, for example— and having a swaggy, "we're so hip we send our reporters into dangerous places looking like they just rolled out of bed" self-aggrandizement, "Vice" is fundamentally earnest: war is terrible, these situations are totally effed up, American foreign policy positions are generally right. The series, according to the voice-over that plays at the beginning, is out to expose the “absurdity of the modern condition,” but it doesn’t really fixate on the “absurdity,” or not much more than any news outlet sending dispatches from dangerous places. If there's any irony in the project at all, it's of the Winona Ryder in an elevator in "Reality Bites" kind: someone everyone thinks of as ironic but who actually doesn't know the meaning of the word.