If cable TV is so terribly uncool, what's Vice Media doing here with a new channel called Viceland? The youth-focused, Brooklyn-based media and marketing empire launches today on Sky in New Zealand, in partnership with the A&E family of networks, which includes Lifetime and History Channel.
Vice is different things to different consumers. Much of its video content, including an eponymous globe-trotting HBO news show, comes across as too self-conscious and earnestly hip, which gets in the way of the solid (if subjective) journalism it aims to produce.
Vice's house style is also easily and frequently mocked; one of my favorite video parodies of HBO's Vice, from the Onion, features a concerned hipster wandering across a shelled-out neighborhood in the West Bank, reporting a story about how Palestinians have been cut off from scoring drugs. "You can tell no one here is high," the reporter says as he walks the streets.
Sampling a few of the new shows on Viceland might send a dubious viewer down that same path of ridicule. Every show, whether it's about marijuana (Weediquette) or food or music (Noisey), isn't all so different from shows that already exist on Spike, Esquire, the Food Network, Travel Channel and elsewhere - the difference is mostly style rather than substance.
Some of what Viceland is attempting resembles earlier attempts by Pivot and Current and other seldom-seen channels that hoped to capture the attention of members of the millennial generation, who are about as likely to subscribe to cable TV as they are to answer a ringing phone. (Thus Viceland is available on multiple platforms and as an app.)
The big feature here is Viceland's tone and sensibility, built on the stipulations that everyone under about age 35 is smarter by default; that all drugs should be legal; that there is no art form more perfect and meaningful than hip-hop; that beneath our skin colors and vast cultural differences, we're all just bros. Or chicks - although when visiting Viceland, there always seem to be a lot more bros.
In an episode of a show called Balls Deep, host Thomas Morton travels to Hot Springs, Ark., in the middle of a sweltering summer to help an elderly preacher stage an old-fashioned Pentecostal tent revival. With his nerd glasses and deadpan demeanor, Morton is more or less the ideal Viceland ambassador, down to his references to controlled substances. As the Pentecostals describe what it's like to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit, Morton observes that it sounds "like the greatest drug rush ever."
The premise of Balls Deep is that Morton will earnestly participate in whatever fringy, unusual lifestyle or belief he's reporting on. Even in its sincere moments, the episode feels uncomfortably voyeuristic - the documentary equivalent of a selfie.
Weediquette, is hosted by Krishna Andavolu and focuses on the many ways people everywhere are ingesting marijuana in "the new pot paradigm." Listening to people talk at length about pot is always a boring way to spend time in any paradigm. In one episode, Andavolu travels to Oregon, where parents of cancer-stricken children give their offspring daily doses of highly concentrated THC in pill form, which seems to help fight the cancer's spread. (Vice excels at finding doctors and experts to underscore any working thesis.)
The pot pills these kids are taking are quite potent, which means they spend part of their days stoned, which can lead to some chattily philosophical playground conversations. This of course means Andavolu can't wait to pop one himself and wander around for his own extended trip. The vicarious experience for the viewer is lacking, to say the least.
Viceland's shows adhere to the media company's reliance on naivete as both a means of reporting and narration. What seems like a healthy amount of curiosity often lapses into a self-absorbed journey into the contours of blithe ignorance. Authority is Viceland's antithesis, which means the hosts of the shows remain in a constant state of relaxed, friendly inquisitiveness that verges on arrogance.
The world is theirs to discover, including all the places and people and facts that have already been discovered, if they'd bothered to look it up. Lesbian film actor Ellen Page (Juno) and her friend Ian Daniel star in Gaycation, a dull but well-meaning travel show that takes them to other countries to see what other gays and lesbians are up to. Answer: not much, but Page and Daniel pretend they've made real friends and found new experiences.
If this meandering, millennial sense of awe gets on your nerves, I'm guessing you're 45 or older and that Viceland might not be for you, even if you're the one paying the cable or satellite bill.
Renaissance hipster and filmmaker Spike Jonze, practically geriatric at 46, serves as Viceland's creative director and muse, informing the network's casual core, but also lending it a more approachable and friendly documentary ethic that the HBO show often lacks. (Vice Media founder Shane Smith, who hosts HBO's Vice with a grating sense of self-importance, was nowhere to be seen in the several hours' worth of Viceland content I screened for this review.)
The best show in Viceland's initial batch is Noisey, a music show derived from a Vice documentary project that takes a slow and steady anthropological approach to the world's various music scenes. In the first episode that premiered this week, correspondent Zach Goldbaum makes an extended visit to the city of Compton, in south-central Los Angeles County - a.k.a. the "Bompton" of hip-hop star Kendrick Lamar and his community of Bloods.
Much of the episode is filled with moments in which the white reporter tries too hard to play it cool among some of Bompton's toughest characters, hopping fences with them to examine sacred sites of graffiti and killings, going where they go, doing what they do. ("I spilled the weed," Goldbaum confesses while sitting shotgun in a car that's spinning doughnuts in a parking lot.)
What eventually emerges in the hour-long episode is a rather beautiful portrait of a deeply misunderstood cultural scene, one that is immersed in criminal behavior and permanent poverty. "Noisey" comes at this with an admirably empathetic attitude that runs counter to its title. In other words, it succeeds by being quiet and listening.
That's where the reliance on fearless naivete pays off. Beneath the posturing and self-regard in its shows, Viceland's strongest attribute is its good ear.
* Viceland begins airing from today on Sky Channel 13