Vice, the kinetic new series premiering on HBO tonight at 11 p.m. EST, is definitely not playing around.
It’s a type of storytelling American audiences are unaccustomed to, an immersive long-form journalistic foray into "the absurdity of the modern condition" that gravitates toward subjects widely shirked as bizarre, profane, or dangerous. Half-hour episodes move at a breathless clip, relaying dizzying jolts of forceful and unforgettable content. Not that you’d want to forget: if nothing else, Vice constitutes a necessary new means of challenging your perceptions.
The program’s scope is remarkably broad: in the first episode alone, Vice founder Shane Smith starts with a narrated introduction to the rowdy world of Filipino politics, a notoriously brutal institution that’s allegedly claimed 1,200 lives in the past decade. We ride with the heavily armed 50-car entourage of a politician traveling to submit his official candidacy, a journey through the countryside historically fraught with danger and the looming threat of violence.
It’s a world where political rivals ruthlessly knock each other off in the name of money, power, and respect; where young men toil in backyard factories, building firearms out of scrap metal; and where Islamist secessionist groups recruit "adventurous" child fighters to train them as soldier-assassins, presided over by a small but "grandfatherly" leader with a penchant for affectionate hand-holding.
This is all takes place in the first fifteen minutes.
Photo Credit: Vice Media
The second half ventures into the cold world of teenage Taliban suicide bombers, illiterate youth from the impoverished margins of Afghan society taught to murder by manipulative imams. We see video footage of a child running into a building and detonating a bomb strapped to his body. Terrified young men in handcuffs are asked why they want to kill.
Then there's the horrific aftermath of a recent bomb attack, a graphic and gut-wrenching reminder of the violence our modern world has produced. It’s an eye-opening and heartbreaking segment, and a powerful beginning to what promises to be an altogether excellent series.
Future episodes deal with topics ranging from the India-Pakistan border dispute and the "Lost Boys" of Utah’s polygamist compounds, to two segments on North Korea that truly must be seen to be believed. It’s quite a lot to absorb, especially in such short episodes, yet this ultimately fails to detract from their power, vitality, or edification.
Photo Credit: Vice Media
But Vice is not merely notable for its stories (though frankly, they’re mind-blowing). Its unique presentation style is equally important, and raises key questions about the future of journalism. One can’t help but wonder about the costs and benefits of the rapid-fire compression of such incredibly complex topics, and what viewers might thereby lose or gain. Additionally, the show’s juxtaposition of widely accepted "Western" values (presumably considered "normal" by the standards of HBO’s viewership) with these "absurd"-by-designation cultural stories and situations (both domestic and international) could prove problematic. Specifically: by presenting said cultures in such brief and largely decontextualized moments of "absurdity," is the viewer’s capacity for real comprehension limited?
The answer seems an emphatic "yes," but I don’t believe this understanding is Vice’s goal. Shane Smith and company want to "tell good stories," nothing more and nothing less. This series is a phenomenal starting point, but if viewers wish to gain deeper knowledge, it’s on them to do the extra legwork.