New-media behemoth Vice, which has a successful TV partnership with HBO, has a way of discovering issues and social concerns that many people already know about, if they’ve been paying any attention at all to the news.
But that’s the trick, isn’t it? “Vice,” as a half-hour show, excels at presenting crises and trouble spots as fresh correspondence from the edge of global apocalypse, with short stories that are stylishly and casually reported by Vice honcho Shane Smith and his team of (often male, often hipper-than-thou) journos. “Vice” can drive an old-fashioned news junkie nutso with its combination of swagger and naivete, but there’s also something about the show that can, on occasion, be enthrallingly spot on — especially when it comes to reaching younger audiences. Sometimes it seems as though the show’s biggest drawback is its brevity.
Or maybe not. Here, in an hour-plus special report called “Fixing the System” (airing Sunday night), “Vice” grapples unsuccessfully with the rather broad subject of U.S. criminal justice — focusing mainly on the deplorable rate at which the federal prison population has expanded since the 1990s, mainly because of mandatory sentencing for drug-related convictions.
The scoop here for “Vice” is access: Smith and his camera crew are invited to accompany President Obama on his July visit to a federal prison in El Reno, Okla., and attend his meeting with six inmates — the first time, “Vice” tells us, that an American president has made such a trip.
Not much news or insight comes of this, however; it’s essentially a photo op. Sitting in a circle of folding chairs, Obama appears sincerely interested in each man’s story. He speaks their language, too, referring not to criminal acts so much as “mistakes,” the usual euphemism in such situations; both Smith and the president acknowledge that their own mistakes might have led to jail time had circumstance and fate not intervened.
Leaving and returning to the president’s day in El Reno, “Fixing the System” profiles some of the inmates’ family members, showing some of the immeasurable ways their lives have changed since their fathers, sons and brothers went to prison; the interviews are moving, but not profoundly so. “Fixing the System” also tries to recap the entire War on Drugs, with assistance from former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. and other experts, and examines some recent bipartisan reform efforts on sentencing.
“Vice” viewers aren’t the type to expect or demand objectivity, which is of little use to them — and perhaps even less so on this particular issue, which may as well come down to the question of legalizing drugs. The flaws in “Fixing the System” are organization and intent; it lacks an emphatic through-line that would recommend reforms, amp up the outrage or tell viewers how to get involved.
Smith and company use up most of their hour declaring what “Fixing the System” is going to be about. And then it’s over.
Vice: Fixing the System (68 minutes) airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.