Viceland reviewed: Solid reporting, bearded hipsters, and the truly regrettable

by Greg Dixon / 19 December, 2016

Michael K Williams in Viceland's Black Market.

Sky TV’s new channel delivers an entertaining mix of solid reporting, bearded Brooklyn hipsters . . . and the truly regrettable.

I never thought I’d say this, but I like vice. Well not vice exactly, that would be far too tiring. No, I mean the vice in Viceland, a new channel on the Sky network.

For those of us old enough to remember a time when there was only one channel that went to bed at 11, the birth of a new channel is always a reason for celebration. Well, apart from the arrival of Duke. Duke is awful. But for the most part, a new channel is like changing your undies: a good thing.

All the same, I wasn’t so sure about Viceland on paper. It offended, I thought, on three fronts. First, because it is a spin-off of the ever-expanding empire, the sort of new media enterprise that we Old Men of the Press are deeply suspicious of. Second, said empire is based in Brooklyn, New York, the hipster capital of the known universe and the spiritual home of such disturbing trends as extravagantly manicured beards.

Third, Viceland is quite firmly ­targeted at millennials, a ­demographic cohort best defined as the group who, not satisfied with having taken your job, are now after your house, too.

Three strikes and you’re out, I say. That will teach me to rush to ­judgment. Viceland, which launched in the US in February and on ­December 1 in New Zealand, won’t have me growing an ironic beard any time soon. But a healthy sampling of programming on its opening ­weekend revealed a channel with plenty of depth and breadth in personality-driven ­documentaries, but also some truly regrettable ­programme names.

There is no excuse for ­calling a show Balls Deep; it’s just being offensive for the sake of it. ­Dreadful pun aside, it has Thomas Morton, a long-time Vice magazine ­contributor, delivering really rather folksy experiential documentaries of the Louis Theroux sort (Theroux should actually be given an “inspired by” credit on much of Viceland’s ­programming), with the first episode essentially hanging out with kids in the rundown city of Gary, Indiana, as they prepare themselves for the “quintessential American coming-of-age ritual”, high school graduation. It was thoughtful, interesting and rather depressing stuff, particularly in its portrait of an America now so plainly divided into the haves and have-nots.

Weediquette is another ­rubbish name. However, the first couple of episodes of Krishna Andavolu’s doco series on ­cannabis and its culture, cultivation and politics are nicely made advocacy ­journalism that enliven a subject in which I’m not much interested in a way that made me want to know more. The second episode, about US veterans battling post-traumatic stress disorder on cocktails of opiates ­prescribed by Veterans Affairs ­doctors, was good, solid reporting.

Andavolu obviously has a talent for getting behind closed doors, and so, too, does Michael K Williams, who presents Black Market, a series on those making their living from the proceeds of illegal trade.

Williams is actually an actor and probably best known as Omar, the stick-up guy in The Wire. So perhaps shaking hands with car-jackers in Black Market isn’t too much of a stretch. But he does surprise. He has a sunny, gee-whiz nature that, although appearing at times to be completely at odds with the subject matter, seems to work wonders in getting his ­subjects, such as a group of South African abalone poachers, to open up about their lives.

The funniest show I’ve seen so far is F---, That’s Delicious. Ostensibly a food show, it’s actually just an excuse for the bonkers American rapper Action Bronson to gorge himself and crack wise. Episode one found him in ­Auckland for this year’s Auckland City Limits festival and to visit a couple of Al Brown joints before heading up to Matakana to eat paua, drink and smoke a lot of weed.

He even visited the White Lady pie cart. “It’s a place for the common man,” he raved, “along with drug addicts.” A bit like Viceland, I should think.

This article was first published in the December 17, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.


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