Review: Viceland Feels Like Current TV on Steroids

Vice has demonstrated its marketing savvy on multiple fronts, with a young-skewing profile that’s become the envy of the media ecosystem. Yet its attempt to launch a linear cable channel, Viceland, on the A&E Network formerly known as H2, feels like an overreach, with an initial lineup of programming that best resembles Current TV on steroids. Determined to look edgy, the network possesses plenty of attitude, but seems so devoted to branding as to be relatively short on substance.

Viceland seeks to announce its renegade credentials in everything from hyperbolic press materials to the very titles for this first batch of series, an evenly split mix of half-hours and hours seemingly intended to bedevil copy editors with names like “Balls Deep,” “F*ck, That’s Delicious,” “Weediquette” and “Gaycation.”

As with Vice’s HBO documentaries, there’s a jittery look here that’s intended to be visually kinetic, and the reporters/correspondents regularly inject themselves into the storytelling – a hit-miss proposition, albeit one familiar to its acolytes.

The main problem, at first blush, is that what Vice is peddling doesn’t feel distinctive enough to merit a dedicated channel, especially juxtaposed with the growing pains exhibited by, say, Esquire network, which is chasing a similar young-male niche; and the aforementioned Current, the predecessor to the soon-to-be-defunct Al Jazeera America. Nor does the network help its cause by affixing descriptions to these shows like “the most original music documentary series on TV today” (out of, what, a pool of one or two?) or “a weed show like no other,” which might come as news to pot-related programs on Discovery, CNBC and CNN.

Of the six shows previewed, the one exhibiting the most promise is “Flophouse,” which chronicles the life, and stand-up routines, of a group of aspiring comedians on the underground circuit. Two others have potential, the first being “Noisey,” in which host Zach Goldbaum takes a sociologically informed dive into different musical locales, in the premiere looking at Compton from the perspective of its gangs and rapper Kendrick Lamar.

Along the same lines, “Gaycation” features actress Ellen Page and her friend Ian Daniel exploring LGBT experiences around the world, beginning in Japan, which, Page observes, interprets homosexuality “as a cluster of fetishes and naughty hobbies.” In the most arresting moment, the two sit quietly as a young man chooses to come out to his mother on camera, which is uncomfortable, moving, and probably as close as Viceland comes to intruding upon TLC’s territory.

After that, everything feels like a pretty thin gruel, starting with “F*ck, That’s Delicious,” which follows rapper Action Bronson and his pals as they travel around eating, performing and generally behaving like college freshmen on a perpetual spring break. Ditto for “Balls Deep,” which offers Thomas Morton as sort of a poor man’s George Plimpton, embedding himself with various subcultures (in the premiere, a Pentecostal ministry) and observing them in a wry, somewhat bemused first-person style.

Finally, “Weediquette” showcases its host, Krishna Andavolu, as a de facto tour guide through the politics, economics and human-interest stories associated with marijuana legalization, kicking off with people who are actually using pot for medicinal purposes, while delving into research about its cancer-treatment benefits.

There is a helpful degree of cohesion to Vice’s editorial template, including an admirable desire to look beyond U.S. borders at a moment when international news from traditional sources has diminished. But in this budding age of first-class documentaries – with HBO, long the standard-bearer, garnering competition from other premium outlets like Showtime and Netflix, as well as corporate sibling CNN – it’s hard to escape Viceland’s narrowness, as if the local university’s anthropology department had commandeered its own commercial cable channel. Each show, moreover, plays like a subset of that subset, auguring that success will be defined more by the age of those who tune in than by the volume.

Viceland will obviously continue to fine-tune its formula, and its parent has if nothing else proven that it’s pretty adept at being noisy. In the early going, though, Viceland isn’t particularly sticky, in terms of providing much of an incentive to hang around.

By that measure, Viceland looks less like a rule-bending amusement park of informational fare than just another underwhelming island in a teeming ocean of media fishing for younger viewers. And while there are a few encouraging signs as the network hoists its sails, there’s not much here initially that feels especially deep, ballsy or otherwise.

Viceland’s premiere lineup: “Noisey,” “Weediquette” (March 1, 10 and 11 p.m.); “Gaycation,” “Balls Deep” (March 2, 10 and 11 p.m.); “F*ck, That’s Delicious,” “Flophouse” (March 3, 10 and 10:30 p.m.).

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