The Froth Estate: VICE’s Cult of Immersion


Franҫois Kiper in the LA Review of Books:

PARENTS AND CHILDREN of the 1990s will remember the PBS “edutainment” television series The Magic School Bus. For many children of this generation, the animated series melded fact and fantasy to distill the complexity of biological, physical, and chemical processes into a fun, microcosmic world explored by a group of elementary school students.

The Emmy-winning cable news show VICE, now into its third season on HBO, likewise often conflates the distinction between reality and the imagination to entertain and (at least professedly) to instruct its viewers. While not animated, VICE simplifies the confusing, overlapping worlds of domestic and foreign affairs by reducing such vexing problems as terrorism, genocide, and poverty to sensational, 30-minute films unfolding in real time, shot from a direct, firsthand perspective. The show’s cameras breathlessly follow its correspondents — “boots on the ground” in the parlance of series creator, frontman, and Svengali Shane Smith, who has a penchant for overblown militaristic rhetoric — as their unmediated, first person accounts of world-historical issues invariably place them in the thick of perilous circumstances, often amidst whirring gunfire and exploding tear gas canisters. VICE’s swashbuckling, immersive eyewitness mode of staging the news plunges the viewer into the action in the manner of a first person video game. Not surprisingly, then, every VICE episode is an engrossing and exhilarating cinematic experience, which is certainly a testament to the talent of the series’ production staff. Even the most cynically guarded TV viewer would be hard-pressed to refrain from marveling at — and temporarily living vicariously through — the exploits of VICE’s correspondents.

However, if we are all students riding on the adrenaline-fueled magic school bus piloted by Smith, executive producer Bill Maher, and chief creative guru Eddy Moretti, perhaps it’s time to stop and question where they are taking us now that the show is into its third season.

Whereas the Magic School Bus series never purported to represent “hard science,” nor held any pretense to usurping the field of science from scientists, VICE CEO Shane Smith makes no bones about his show being equal to the task of “heavy” and “serious” journalism. Despite the show’s disregard (or ignorance) of fundamental journalistic ethics — such as the hazards of participant observation — Smith unabashedly proclaims that VICE is “blazing a new trail” at the forefront of “a changing of the guard in media.”

More here.