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Review: 'Vice' reports explicitly from around globe

'Vice' on HBO isn't exactly in-depth, but what it shows is of value to viewers.

April 05, 2013|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Shane Smith, left, of HBO's "Vice."
Shane Smith, left, of HBO's "Vice." (HBO )

If you are under 30, male and interested in sex, drugs or anything paired with the word "extreme," you are likely to be familiar with Vice — the magazine, proprietary websites, YouTube channel, ad agency, record label and now TV show.

"Vice," which premieres Friday on HBO, is a half-hour, globe-trotting news program from the Brooklyn-based, multi-platform media company of the same name (35 offices in 18 countries).

The company has been attacked — "chided" might be a better word — for the way its content is tailored for and sometimes by the companies that sponsor it. The HBO show became controversial, to overstate the case, when a trip to North Korea on the back of three Harlem Globetrotters and Dennis Rodman was seen as unfortunate or incompetent, given Rodman's flattering comments to Kim-Jong Un, just before the Young Leader went war crazy.

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It may lack the superficial gravitas of more established dispensers of broadcast journalism. (It does have Bill Maher as an executive producer and Time/CNN correspondent Fareed Zakaria as a consultant.) But journalism has always had its upstarts as the latest (and frequently cheaper) technologies create fresh avenues for news and untapped desires in the audience that in one way or another pays to have the news delivered. Aesthetics change, but so does the very definition of what constitutes good, necessary reporting.

What "Vice" offers is not deep or thorough, but it is not without value. The news comes in pieces now; to get the full picture, you have to assemble it yourself.

The reporting is sensational, in the sense that you feel it, without being sensationalistic, and it helps erase the bored detachment with which we grow to hear a phrase like "terrorist bombing." The episodes I've seen include segments on child bombers in Afghanistan, scrap-metal guns and political assassination in the Philippines, an escape from North Korea and nuclear deterrence between India and Pakistan.

The series replicates the look and feel of the online videos. There are helpful maps and animated dotted lines. Big titles. Photographically, it's sophisticated without going too far into prettiness; there is an intimacy to images that is, not paradoxically, cinematic.

The younger reporters look as if they've been plucked from indie bands; they represent their audience, and also an ideal the audience holds of itself. But if their attitude is modern-casual, it's also respectful — there is no sense here, at least in the segments I've seen, of Dang, Bra, I Can't Wait to Tweet This. Indeed, the overall tone of Vice is less hysterical than any random half-hour of cable news.

It is true that there are some explicit images here; I would have preferred not to have seen a head separated from a body by a bomb, but frankly, I am more disturbed by the way that local news promos pop up in the middle of prime time, flogging crime or accident footage I Don't Want to Miss.

For all the thrills HBO would like you to know the show contains, there is an educational impulse at work here.

The show, somewhat portentously, claims to want to "expose the absurdity of the modern condition." (Someone has been reading their Sartre and/or Camus.) That is, the world is messed up, dude — although "messed" is not the word any self-respecting "Vice" reporter would use there.

As personified by burly, bearded Vice co-founder Shane Smith, the show's host and, as it were, senior correspondent, explaining the Cold War to an audience not old enough to remember it. It is the confidential, pedagogical voice of the slightly aged hipster, world-tested and a little wearied, hoping to help build a fitter, happier, better-informed sort of young person. It's an implicit attack on the way that crazy, horrible and awful things become the new normal. The implication is that it does not have to remain that way.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Vice'

Where: HBO

When: 11 p.m. Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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