When Dennis Rodman and a "VICE" production crew traveled to North Korea some months back, flouting all diplomatic conventions, many criticized the venture as a PR stunt for the HBO show, a claim its executive producer Shane Smith vehemently denied.
Publicity gambit or not, the trip makes for some compelling television. The season finale of "VICE," which is produced by a media company of the same name, airs Friday night.
"This week on 'VICE,' we go to North Korea," opens Smith, at the start of the episode, with a smugness that suggests he has been waiting all season to say the phrase. His team, he explains, worked in "official and back channels," to convince the basketball-loving Kim Jong Un to host them for a friendly exhibition game with some North Korean players. But Smith has to sit the trip out, due to his work on past documentaries about the remote country. Leading the expedition is "VICE" correspondent Ryan Duffy, who brings three members of the Harlem Globetrotters to play with him in the game.
Once in North Korea, officials host the "VICE" crew for a state tour that is even more bizarre than one would expect. They visit a number of institutions that wouldn't look out of place in any western civilized country – a shopping mall, a university, even a Sea World-like aquarium – aside from the fact most of the sites are completely desolate, with just a few "minders" (who Duffy suggests may actually be North Korean secret police) to show them around.
In one particularly chilling scene, the "VICE" crew visits a computer lab filled with young North Koreans sitting in front of its monitors. It looks perfectly normal except that none of them are clicking or typing; they just blankly stare at the screens as if they had never used a computer before.
"Was anything we were seeing real? It felt like we were walking through a true live 'Truman Show,' created just for us," Duffy remarks, "Everywhere we went and everything we saw was constructed to convey the exact opposite of what we know about North Korea."
Adding to the tension is the fact the "VICE" expedition came just after North Korea had successfully conducted an underground nuclear test. At every step of the tour, officials brag about this and other recent military shows of aggression, provocations condemned by the global community at large.
The Globetrotters are often the camera's focus as they interact, comically, to the peculiar situations they have been placed in. Rodman's presence is notably muted for most of the episode. That is, until, after watching the exhibition basketball game with Kim Jong Un, Rodman makes his well-publicized speech in which he called the Supreme Leader a "friend for life."
After the game, the "VICE" crew joins Kim Jong Un and his officials for a booze-soaked reception. "VICE" is barred from bringing cameras, so Duffy recalls the rowdy antics over a slide show of North Korean state media footage and photographs. He notes what a strange visual it must be for the average North Korean who has long been fed anti-American rhetoric to see their leader gallivanting with a bunch of Americans
The moment, as is much of the episode, is rife with irony, which works great on a television screen. For international relations, not so much.