Each episode of Vice, the recently launched newsmagazine (Fridays, HBO, 9:30 p.m. and available on demand), starts with this statement: "The world is changing and no one knows where it's going. But we'll be there uncovering the news, culture and politics. And expose the absurdity of the human condition. This is the world through our eyes."
It's a grand statement from an outfit better known for sass than substance.
Vice is the multimedia conglomerate that started, back in the day, as a free paper in Montreal. Now, it's U.S.-based but worldwide, enormously successful online, covering music, fashion, travel, technology and sports with a major brash attitude. Its online HQ also has a Not Safe For Work section featuring funny but titillating sex stuff.
There is no doubt that Vice's success, which is unquestionable, was rooted initially in its vivid celebrations of debauchery, done with oodles of irony, and a frank sensibility that hedonism is good. Its motto has been, "We do smart things in a stupid way and stupid things in a smart way." Now, with the newsmagazine on HBO, it's taking a leap into doing smart news a smart way. Is it any good?
Yes, it's remarkably fresh, bracing and at times terrifying in its bluntness. It makes traditional TV news look dumb. Perhaps most important of all, its livid directness illuminates all the creaky contrivances that bedevil traditional television news reporting and presentation. The clichés of TV news patter are absent. Vice reporters are neither self-important nor self-consciously telling the supposedly ignorant viewer about what it all means. They're puzzled, curious, amused sometimes and react with real, recognizable emotions.
A story about child suicide bombers in Afghanistan was stunningly vivid, from the footage of the body parts strewn across a bombing scene to the smirks of the would-be bombers enjoying their fame. In a way that traditional TV news never does, the Vice reporters entered into the story with gusto. Appalling footage did the talking when necessary and when the Vice person on the scene, one of the company bosses, Shane Smith, asked questions of the Taliban, local officials and the would-be terrorist, he asked pithy "how come…?" questions, the ones that spring into the viewer's mind.
After Vice, you'll never watch the ludicrous gimmick of Pastor Mansbridge debriefing reporters (last week's mention of Peter Mansbridge ponderously interviewing Amanda Lang about her interview with the Royal Bank of Canada boss and her unctuous reply clearly struck a chord with readers) with the same passivity, and you'll recognize the phony seriousness of most TV reporters as the obvious artifice it is.
What's ironic is that Vice is both new and retro. For all its vague flavour of gonzo journalism, it takes TV news back to when there was authentic news reporting about compelling topics, and less attention to formula and packaging. Back to a time before CBC, CTV and Global spent fortunes on media consultants who decided that it is vital that some news anchors sit down and others stand up, and that every reporter needs to appear on camera nodding like a bobble-head toy.
Of the other Vice stories done so far, some were brilliant and one felt unfinished. The one about "the most dangerous place in the world," about the Kashmir line of control, a dubious de facto border between India and Pakistan, was both wonderfully educational and a visual stunner. The final piece of footage, of border guards parading and preening, was unforgettable. A piece about politics and guns in the Philippines was also an eye-opener. A piece about the smuggling of people out of North Korea got rather lost in its own tangled narrative. But, then, Vice is also responsible for that bizarre visit by Dennis Rodman to North Korea and, while it has been dismissed as "jackass" journalism by some, we await the actual report.
This move by Vice into TV journalism for HBO has been the subject of considerable curiosity, including an oddly skeptical piece in a recent New Yorker magazine. On the evidence so far, Vice is succeeding in changing the TV news game. It might not always nail "the absurdity of the human condition," but it sure reveals the absurdity of traditional TV news.
The Central Park Five (PBS, 9 p.m.) is the powerful doc by Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball) about the 1989 case of five black and Latino teenagers who were convicted of raping a white woman who was attacked while jogging in Central Park. After they each spent six to 13 years in prison, a serial rapist confessed to the crime. The doc, which induces anger about the cops and the media, emphasizes that the case actually drags on to this day.
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