"Jackass" Goes Geopolitical

Vice Productions

HBO's new Friday-night newsmagazine, Vice—as in the uppity print-mag dudes turned YouTube stuntmasters who recently made news by sending Dennis Rodman to North Korea, not the police beat—comes on like a revved-up 60 Minutes for the tats-and-testosterone set. Trouble spots around the globe are high on the menu; either danger or the threat of it gets amped up with shameless music cues and attention-grabbing cutting. All three regular correspondents are, as may go without saying, male, with original Vice co-founder Shane Smith in the Mike Wallace Yoda slot opposite a couple of younger wiseacres: Thomas Morton, Vice's anxiety specialist, and Ryan Duffy, the show's jaunty answer to Kid Rock. The whole thing comes to us courtesy of executive producer Bill Maher, whose contending yens to be a thoughtful guy and a hip one often remind me of a ventriloquist who hasn't caught on yet that his dummy is psychotic.

All the same, any of you who still keep an Edward R. Murrow bobblehead in your vintage VW's back window may as well just shift into reverse and run me over right now. From where I sit, Vice has its virtues as a loose-cannon, curiosity-driven alternative to trad TV news. While the show features its share and then some of posturing, it isn't officious, and that's refreshing—so far, anyhow. Reviewers only got sent two episodes, and I can easily imagine recanting once Vice yields in earnest to becoming Jackass gone geopolitical or The Amazing Race plus death squads. Both possibilities are more or less built into its premise, which is to ship Smith or one of his colleagues off to someplace scary, get them access (if possible) to the people who make it that way, and show us what they saw and how they reacted to it.

Tonight's premiere has Murphy tagging along with Filipino provincial governor Esmael Manguadadatu as he files for re-relection—hardly a routine chore, since Manguadadatu's wife and two sisters were among the 57 people killed in 2009's Maguinanoa massacre, presumably by his political rivals, the first time he ran. Murphy's jokey, shambling demeanor would horrify the dapperness right out of Anderson Cooper, but his knack for creating viewer rapport does make for an uncommonly intimate look at both the Philippines' insanely trigger-happy notion of democracy in action—1,200 political assassinations in the past decade, we're told—and the illegal underground of artisanal gunsmiths who keep everybody supplied.

Then Smith pops up in Afghanistan for a piece on the Taliban's increasing use of children as young as ten as suicide bombers, including interviews with a couple of them who ended up in custody and an unnervingly fey imam—think Omar Sharif as played by Russell Brand—who thinks it's a swell idea. The footage we're shown of one attack's bloody aftermath is, incidentally, much more graphic than the TV-news norm: a decapitated head, somebody carrying a severed human hand. It's plenty powerful, but what may stick in your craw is that featuring gore in the debut is also Vice's calculated way of flaunting how badass it's going to be.

Next week will bring us Smith's on-the-scene look at India and Pakistan's endlessly simmering dispute over Kashmir—"the most dangerous border in the world"—and Morton following a young escapee from North Korea on the last lap of her clandestine, circuitous journey via China and Laos to Thailand, abetted by a South Korean priest who specializes in smuggling out refugees. The latter, especially, is riveting stuff—the priest's visible jitters while leading a rushed group prayer before his wards board a boat are especially memorable—and yet, well, can you see a pattern emerging? Though Smith's Kashmir segment does find room to cram in bits of historical context here and there, Vice's basic m.o. is high-risk tourism. World tensions play the same part that exotic food does on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations.

Not only do we seldom go long without our guys nervously or jocularly reminding us that they're in harm's way, but their personalities—not reporting chops—are our entry point to each story. When Smith, whose gig is to be the ruminative one, tells us that seeing a suicide bombing's effects can really "fuck with your brain" or explains that he gets upset about Afghanistan child bombers because he's a father himself, is that touching candor or a way of making it all about him? The obvious answer is that you can't have one without the other. But when Shepard Smith or Cooper go personal on us and start venting their feelings, it's a break with their usual manner, not a trademark.

So you may be wondering why I'm not panning Vice outright. The short answer is that it's often really good TV—evocative, vivid, and so on—and not all that different in approach from the first-person subjectivity of an awful lot of highly esteemed print-magazine journalism. Why shouldn't TV enjoy the same leeway? But it's also worth pointing out that, compared to Dan Rather, these guys are rank amateurs at self-dramatization—and the mantle of institutional authority that Rather's act came garbed in made his vainglories (not to mention Walter Cronkite's) a lot more problematic. Not only do I unfondly remember Gunga Dan's reports from Afghanistan in full cloak-and-dagger Mujahideen drag, but I've always been grateful for Tom Brokaw's crack: "Whenever there is the first hint of a counter-clockwise symbol on a weathermap in the fall that a hurricane might hit land, "Mr. Hard News" is down there wrapped around a lamppost somewhere."

At least Vice's DIY version is more forthright and less sanctimonious. That doesn't stop me from hoping that the show's topics will get more varied, since just doing "Life in the Danger Zone" every week is sure to get rote P.D.Q. Even if it was probably part of the attraction for Maher, the boys'-club swagger of it all can also set my teeth on edge. (In this day and age, Bill, it wouldn't really kill you to insist on giving an intrepid woman or two equal time with the dudes.) But I tend to be forgiving when a show keeps me interested, and right now Vice does. We'll see how long that lasts before I get fed up.

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