News & Politics

Flippant Journeys Around the Globe with 'The VICE Guide to Everything'

MTV's new show offers a Gonzo alternative to MSM coverage of the world's most dangerous places. But to what end?

In the first few minutes of MTV’s new docu-reporting series, "The VICE Guide to Everything," Shane Smith, co-founder of cult alt-rag VICE, sets up the stories we’re about to watch next to three nondescript protesters. We have no idea who these people are, what they (or those around them) are protesting and why Smith is there, but with a righteous pump of his fist and a hearty “Vive le communisme, vive l’egalité!” the contextual confusion is sideswiped for familiarity—a fast-cut, sex, drugs and rock n’ roll MTV intro.

Shop ▾

Four years ago, VICE began inching toward TV by launching an online broadcast network. The MTV incarnation of thisis positioned as an antidote to the staid storytelling of the current media cartel. Since its print magazine start in 1996, “alternative,” has been VICE’s modus operandi, offering derisive and definitive coverage of fashion, music, sex, and of course, international politics, for the under-30 set. Initially documenting early hipster culture in Montreal, the magazine became much more with success: circulating in a multitude of mostly Western countries, moving HQ to New York City, and dedicating whole issues to fringe socio-political causes (see: “The Nature Issue,” “The Iraq Issue,” “The Natives Issue”). What didn’t change was the well-loved, scathingly ironic and mostly first-person voice of VICE contributors. Eventually satire became a narrative zeitgeist but as VICE‘s extreme journalism continued to stomp all over the line between irreverence and importance, fans and detractors questioned whether satire and substance could actually mix.

Still VICE’s success could be posited as an http generation’s devotional to traditional journalism—albeit adapted to our navel-gazing tendencies. Its news authority comes from an ability to volley effortlessly between the things we value (music, open sexual attitudes, generally not giving a fuck) and ballsy, other-side-of-the-story reporting. The concept is all very intrepid and self-implicates VICE as an asset to its milieu, but with the choice to air on a network that propagates the opposite—in fact, deigns to dictate—what exactly is the "VICE Guide" selling?

VICE has always beelined for off-center—past interview subjects include a rumoured al-Qaeda recruiter, drug dealers, anti-racist skinheads and even Sadaam Hussein’s lawyer—and this series lets viewers be voyeurs on these Gonzo-ish excursions. For the most part "VICE Guide" does well, exploring a variety of global stories and traipsing boldly into countries most broadcast reporters wouldn’t set a Rockport in. The first three episodes find Smith and his correspondent coterie traveling the world, uncovering stories that aren’t sufficiently broadstroke enough for CNN and the CBC; stories the BBC might hint at in a special series, but contain enough renegade ingenuity for a young audience desperate for cache.

In Yemen, Smith and heralded filmmaker Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are, Being John Malkovich) travel dressed as Yemenis in floor-length dishdashas and keffiyeh headscarves. They shop for knives, a customary male accessory. Jonze picks one in mint green and jokes “It’ll bring out the green in my eyes,” deflecting cultural tension and eluding explanation through his self-deprecation. The lack of factual detail during their excursion is obscured by the clip’s benevolent, proto-progressive revelation: that Yemen, despite the mainstream media’s portrayal of the country as a teeming Taliban hotbed, is filled with mostly harmless, average Jibrils who have skateboarding kids and are content to chew the natural stimulant Qat all day. Cue the omnipresent first-world statement of burden: “Yemen will only become the next Afghanistan if we in America let it.”

In another clip, the VICE team gets rare access to far-out North Korea. On the official state tour—foreign visitors can’t travel without appointed guides—Smith acknowledges the difficulty in chatting up regular North Koreans. But the admission that he lacks real insight doesn’t stop Smith from becoming the sardonic star of his limited interactions. One man, schooling Smith on local parlance for the country’s charismatic leader (always say “General” Kim Jong Il), gets sarcastically derided in the voiceover; another woman, clearly ecstatic to have Western visitors to her tea shop, is dismissed as just another part of this “freaky, freaky place.” Then, in an enormous stadium, Smith is one of just a handful viewing a 150,000-plus-person choreographed spectacle, and yeah, it’s over the top like we’ve heard North Korea to be. But what more are we learning about Pyongang than cult of personality-proving anecdotes? Is there a purpose other than voyeuristic superiority? The answer’s a resoundingly aloof “nah.” "VICE Guide" is good at what it wants to be good at: selling its own detached worldview.

To be fair, a lot of people will watch this and glean something, maybe even be moved enough to open a new browser tab to research Ghanaian death culture. But by latching onto a basic justification of exposing rarely seen stories around the world, it’s really nothing more than cultural pillage chill enough to fit the mandate of a supra-laissez-faire, presumptively post-racial audience. Would a female reporter hanging with a mafia-backed Milanese pop star ask the same questions? Why not let a Detroit local tell us why a basement strip club benefits the local economy, instead of teasing to an inevitable stripper-on-reporter scene? Despite the show’s ostensibly altruistic excursions into blacklisted hotspots, coverage of Third World resourcefulness, and reports on the DIY reclamation of America by its politically and economically beleaguered citizens, VICE wants to be the star of its imperialist home video. All on this presupposed embedded-reporter-subtext that there is no broader context.

We don’t know why Shane Smith is at a Parisian protest in the inaugural episode, but he’s rocking a cool military jacket and unafraid to hang with the locals and speak their language. It plays neatly into the globalized rhetoric of the current MTV generation. And so Smith’s seemingly spontaneous, yet totally conspicuous, “Vive le communisme!” stands out as a beacon of substance among other more simple MTV shows like JerseyShore, 16 And Pregnant and The City. But, like reality TV, VICE Guide’s scenester-on-the-scene sells us our imagined selves. Conveniently, post-WikiLeaks this is an even more salient hook: who else would we trust?

Following the patented VICE formula of creating 4Loko content (adrenaline-fueled, hyper-hetero, gross-out) and disseminating it via the ever-authoritative white male, the show continues to perpetuate the blanketing agenda of its print predecessor: cultural hegemony. Clip bumpers alone (“The VICE Guide to Yemen”) have the potential to dupe audiences into believing conclusive-ish statements about whole countries, ideas and peoples.

Throughout the first three episodes, Smith goes from protests in France to sous chef-ing in China to pub-crawling in London, England. Everywhere he’s chummy and worldly; hugging village donkeys, buying rounds, and of course, expressing solidarity. Our host seems like a totally rad dude, we learn, but what about those protesters and chefs and binge-drinking students: who are they? Vive l’egalité? To really function as a subversive alternate to mainstream news coverage and empower its viewers (and subjects), "VICE Guide" needs to bunk the status quo trappings.