On the second episode of "VICE," a Christian minister helps aid a young North Korean escapee named Kim out of Chinese sex slavery through Laos to Thailand, where she will be granted refugee status. To do so, the minister must pay her pimp the money he spent on her abortion, boat her across a river, boost her over a border fence and retrieve her from a Thai prison.
Guiding us through this daring rescue is Thomas, a boyish-looking correspondent, who gets visibly nauseous in the car ride through the hills. He is understandably uncomfortable about asking Kim (whose identity is masked in fear of retribution upon her family in North Korea) about working in the sex trade. And he sounds reasonably nervous about the small time frame he and the minister have to get back across the river to Laos before border control comes back on its round.
All together, "Escape from North Korea" makes for compelling TV, and an excellent example of what the show's creators say they want "VICE" to be all about.
It's ironic, then, that mainstream America's introduction to "VICE" was its entrance into North Korea a few months ago. Unlike the shadows in which Kim escapes, it was a showy ordeal. The Harlem Globetrotters wowed Kim Jong Un on the court, Dennis Rodman called the dictator – who is currently threatening the U.S. with nuclear war – "a friend for life," and a producer bragged about getting "wasted" with the supreme leader.
Up until the frenzy, VICE – the 19-year-old, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based media company that started as an alternative magazine but has expanded to a record label, website and YouTube channel – existed in the fringes. VICE sent Dennis Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters to North Korea – so called "basketball diplomacy" – to film in the most isolated country in the world for its new show premiering on HBO this Friday.
"I don't know what we were expecting," says Shane Smith, CEO of VICE Media and host of "VICE."
"First of all, we weren't expecting Kim Jong Un to show up. When he did, we weren't expecting him to invite everyone to his house."
But he did – where they were served, according to correspondent Ryan Duffy, an "epic feast."
"I've had a lot of experience; I've done three documentaries about North Korea," Smith says. "So I know the sort of rabid fascination people have with it."
And they do. The rabid fascination with North Korea – particularly when its supreme leader welcomes America's premiere basketball-playing cross-dresser – quickly turned into rabid criticism. Disgust snaked through the blogosphere, all the way up to the State Department, whose spokesman chastised, "Clearly you've got the regime spending money to wine and dine foreign visitors, when they should be feeding their own people."
Smith called the State Department scolding "lunacy" and on the allegation that it was a publicity stunt for the show he scoffs:
"If I could get into the hardest country in the world to get into and meet the hardest leader in the world to meet as a stunt for my TV show, then, hey, I must be the best publicity guy in the world and everyone should hire me."
"If '60 Minutes' had done it or if the BBC done it, would have been genius, but because VICE did it we're guilty of stunts and being cocky bastards."
Whether Smith believes it or not, "VICE" is now in the league of "60 Minutes," and other so called "television news magazines" – even if it is on HBO. (Of the decision to team up with the premium channel rather than a network, Smith jokes, "I can't personally go two sentences without swearing, so that was an issue.")
And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Early episodes of "VICE" fling tattooed correspondents across Asia, to report on things like the gun culture and political assassinations in the Philippines, the nuclear standoff between Pakistan and India, and the rise of child suicide bombers in Afghanistan. Each segment is narrow enough in scope to fit comfortably in its 15 minutes.
At times, the news hook is nebulous at best, but "VICE" often focuses on a fresh angle to make it relevant. For instance, in the case of the Afghan suicide bombers, it highlights how the Taliban preys on children's religious ignorance to turn them into unknowing "martyrs."
"A lot of times the best stories happen to be in the dangerous places," Smith says. "But we don't go to a place just because it is dangerous."
The gun- and explosion-laden opening credits suggest that "VICE" will embrace a violent machismo in its reporting. But Smith insists later episodes will explore cultural, economic and environmental issues as well. "I was just editing one today [set] in Europe. There's not one gun in the whole piece, if you can imagine that!"
He also promises that "VICE" will look at stories here on the homefront, from – in his words – "body snatching in America" to "the lost boys of polygamous cults."
As reviews have noted, the camera often reveals the correspondent's involuntary reaction to what he or she is experiencing, be it nausea from a car ride or speechlessness rendered by the thought of losing one's own children to a suicide bomb.
"We are human, we aren't auto bots, and consequently, we get affected by the story," Smith says. It nevertheless plays into the raw, documentary form of reporting – what Smith calls "immersionism" – on which VICE prides itself.
"Does it punch you in the face? Is it going to be something that you are going to say, holy s---, and talk about the next day at work or at school or at the bar or whatever?" says Smith, of his criteria of what makes a story "VICE"-worthy.
People were certainly talking about the North Korea ordeal, so the controversy fits Smith's model.
"Quite frankly, though, 'VICE' has been either loved or hated since its inception, which is fine with us."
It would be a shame to let the Dennis Rodman fiasco alone make that decision for you.