Vice, HBO's half-hour newsmagazine that premieres today, plans to "expose the absurdity of the modern condition," as its tagline promises.
In the opening episode, Vice Media CEO Shane Smith drives through Kabul, wearing black Ray-Bans and set to interview a senior Taliban leader and old pal of Osama bin Laden. By the season finale, reporter Ryan Duffy hangs in North Korea with Dennis Rodman, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and the Harlem Globetrotters.
"I think what you have to do is you have to go into these places and do what Hunter S. Thompson would have done, and immerse yourself in the story," Smith tells Rolling Stone. He has been with Vice Media since it began as a magazine in Montreal in 1994. "Don't be afraid of the story, and go with it."
Fortunately, fear doesn't seem to be an issue for Vice's young, tattooed correspondents, who always seem ready for danger – or a beer. Over the course of the season, they interview rogue Filipino gun makers, ride along as North Koreans are smuggled south and tour radioactive wastelands in Iraq. (Notably absent from the progressive crew are female reporters. Smith says segments with women were planned but "security couldn't be guaranteed.") "As things get harder economically, we tend to be more and more isolationist, but humanity is all in this together," Smith says. "I think there has to be more of an understanding of what is happening elsewhere in the news."
As much as the show is meant to "punch you in the face" with harsh international realities, it's still an outgrowth of Vice Media's hipster empire – which comes complete with a magazine, website, record label and video series. The show maintains the brand's DIY sensibility with a shaky camera, slightly overexposed shots and Anthony Bourdain-style voiceover. It feels a little like your buddy from the bar just happened to be wandering through eastern Afghanistan with a camera crew.
"Vice is an entertainment company but because we started doing newsy stuff, we get a huge resonance with our audience," Smith says of his youthful demographic. "So we have this weird mix, and I think we come at it from more of a storytelling, documentary angle, which is go there, spend time with the people, press record and let them tell their story."
The show's biggest scoop so far is its controversial and highly publicized North Korean tour. However, despite Kim Jong-un's threat last week to reduce the U.S. to "ashes and flames," Smith stands by Dennis Rodman's "basketball diplomacy."
"Not to negate the seriousness of it, but we have been there many times and they rattle their sabers a lot, whenever they need energy, or whenever they need food, or whenever the U.S. and South Korea do war games. I would say it has been heightened recently and that's a tragedy," he says. "But it's another reason why we should look to each other's countries and have a little bit more understanding about each other."
"Look, they hate America, they hate Japan, they think we are the worst people in the world, and they threaten to nuke us," he concludes. "But weirdly, they just love the Chicago Bulls. And we figured if we could get someone [from the Bulls], we could get more access to this weird and crazy place."