Before even premiering, the HBO series Vice has solidified its place as the most controversial television series to debut this year by arranging in late February to send Dennis Rodman to North Korea to meet Kim Jong-un. According to media reports about the trip, the former NBA star, sometimes cross-dresser, and ex-husband of Carmen Electra spent his time in North Korea gorging on a 10-course meal with a man who, days later, would threaten a nuclear strike against the U.S.
In the introduction to each episode of Vice, which premieres Friday at 11 p.m. on HBO, the show declares it will "expose the absurdities of the modern condition" — and the Rodman trip, footage of which will air at the end of the season, seems a good indication of just how much it should deliver on that promise. The series, brought to you by the publishers of the Gen-X handbook Vice magazine, sends correspondents to remote and exotic corners of the world and into situations with some degree (or at least the air) of great danger — and then lets the cameras roll.
Shane Smith, founder of Vice Media, calls it "immersionist" journalism. "When you're sitting in New York, someone pitches you a story — but when you hit the ground, that story changes almost invariably from the day you arrive," he says. "You go to the story, you immerse yourself in the story, and then you press record and you let the people who are part of that story tell the story."
The first two episodes feature Vice correspondents "immersed" with a South Korean pastor who is smuggling North Korean defectors into Thailand and with a governor in the Philippines (where political assassinations are exceptionally common) as he files papers for reelection.
Cynics might say the "immersionist" journalism is just a crafty rebranding of another, less kind term that has been used to describe the Vice style: stunt journalism.
Smith says the haters can call Vice's style whatever they want, because as he sees it, Vice is still eating the traditional news establishment's lunch.
"We got into the hardest country to get into, to meet the hardest-to-meet leader in the world. It was called 'stunt journalism' or 'parachute journalism,'" Smith says. "If 60 Minutes had got in there or BBC had got in there, that wouldn't even be a question — it would just be, 'Oh, great.' But because it's Vice, because we're weird and we're over here in Williamsburg being freaky, then it's stunt journalism."
Vice might get the most attention for the Rodman trip, or for tagging along while defectors try to escape from North Korea, but the show's real highlights are segments of the show featuring Smith himself — reflective and thoroughly reported stories about child suicide bombers in Afghanistan, the militarized border between India and Pakistan, and increased rates of birth defects and rare cancers in Falluja after the U.S. occupation.
"All we're trying to do is tell the best stories we possibly can, and that's all we've done since we began. We're going to keep on doing it," Smith says. "If people want to say it's not traditional journalism, fine. I have no problem with that."