The thing about “VICE” — the new HBO show by the magazine-cum-media empire of the same name — is that it’s strangely un-VICE-like. The first episode, which aired April 5, features reports on political violence in the Philippines and suicide bombing in Afghanistan. It’s shallow in a “dude this sh*t is crazy” kind of way, but it’s also very earnest. In the introductory voiceover we hear that “the world is changing… But we’ll be there uncovering the news, culture and politics.” In the words of CEO and on-screen personality Shane Smith to NPR, “We’re going to turn our cameras on something that we think is important… Because we’re part of the Fourth Estate and that’s our job.” Well, ok, but isn’t this supposed to be VICE? What about the hookers and blow?
I assume we’ll get some of that as the season continues. But it seems like VICE — which brought us productions like “The VICE Guide to Shagging Muslims” and “I Gave a Handy at Jew Camp” — is trying to signal a newfound moral seriousness. The show overflows with sympathy for people whose families have been killed in political assassinations and terrorist attacks, and it condemns leaders who use children as soldiers and suicide bombers. So far VICE’s ethics seem to be that war is bad, violence is bad, and the use of children as suicide bombers is especially bad. Agreed, obviously, but a habit of wanton offensiveness doesn’t easily accommodate the gravitas of warzone reporting. VICE wants to have it both ways, and it doesn’t work.
In a recent piece by Lizzie Widdicombe in The New Yorker, VICE founder Gavin McInnes (who is no longer with the company) described the magazine’s formula like this: “My big thing was I want you to do stupid in a smart way and smart in a stupid way. So if you’re going to Palestine, try to find a good burger joint…. Conversely, if you’re gonna do a thing on farts or poo… Be super-scientific and get all the data.” A 2010 article in The New York Times attributed the same philosophy to another VICE founder, Suroosh Alvi, and I once heard it from a friend who did a stint as a VICE intern. It’s a brilliant, cynical recipe for creating a compelling and consistent voice at the expense of any subject. And pursuing it undermines any moral pretense VICE might have.