Yemen. What's up with that place?
Look up Yemen in the online news and you will instantly get the impression the place is a safe haven for al-Qaeda, a hotbed of radicals intent on attacking the West.
Not so, according to one of the more interesting excursions into news reporting on TV right now. In fact, this program concluded that, on the ground in Yemen, a lot of people are high on the drug khat during their waking hours and couldn't give a rodent's posterior about al-Qaeda. If anything, they loathe al-Qaeda as much as your average American does.
The program is The Vice Guide to Everything (MTVCanada, Monday, 10 p.m., Fridays, midnight). It premiered this week and, while on the surface it might seem like Gonzo journalism run amok, it's actually terrifically informative.
And it makes even more sense in the era of WikiLeaks, a time when it's being revealed on an almost daily basis that official statements by governments rarely tell the full, candid truth. One can imagine that eventually a cable from a U.S. embassy will be released, pointing out that while there are al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen, most Yemenis dislike them and would rather get high than agitate for murderous terrorism campaigns.
The Vice Guide to Everything is, obviously, an offshoot of Vice magazine which started as an arts magazine in Montreal in the 1990s (with help from a government grant, according to some stories). Since then, Vice, now based in New York, has become something entirely different - a vehicle for provocative, annoying, smart-alecky and occasionally inspired journalism.
This TV show is a natural extension of the Vice brand, but it's way more than a marketing stunt. The magazine has described the show as "a cross between 60 Minutes and Jackass," but there is much less Jackass than you'd think.
One of the magazine's co-founders, Canadian Shane Smith, is often front and centre in the TV show, and the show has the advantage of filmmaker Spike Jonze (who worked on the Jackass TV series before directing such movies as Adaptation and Where The Wild Things Are) being in charge of the filming. The stories are thus chosen for visual as well as narrative or news-revelation quality.
Apart from examining Yemen from an odd angle, the 30-minute episodes tell us about a strip club in Detroit that's run out of a private home, a frightening slum in Brazil where intense, vicious "ultimate fighting" is the most popular sport, a singing circuit in Naples openly controlled by the mob and North Korea, where an elaborate history of the country is enacted by more than 100,000 people. Yep, drugs and fighting are featured, but it's not as if the show is making it up.
There is a certain amount of posturing in these shows but they represent the natural inclinations of guys who are put into a very strange place. And they are no more irritating than the posturing of network news reporters giving us the official position on something or other.
What makes it all worthwhile is the natural curiosity of Smith and his cohorts. They ask questions that you or I might feel like asking. They want to see the oddities unfold, not just hear about them. And, to the vast youth audience watching MTV, the series must surely unveil a world more complex, more nuanced than they see in any other medium that attempts to explain the world.
Watching the series, I was reminded of that brief period in the 1980s when, in Canada, MuchMusic took a visceral interest in politics. That was when Master T, a MuchMusic VJ, was assigned to cover the Progressive Conservative Party's leadership convention to elect a successor to then prime minister Brian Mulroney. Master T spotted Mulroney arriving. He was just a few feet away. "Yo, Brian, whassup?" he said by way of greeting. Mulroney ignored him. He looked vaguely repulsed. It was a major generational moment, one in which Mulroney's popularity sank even further.
There are lessons to be learned from that. Also from the fact that most people in Yemen are more devoted to khat than to al-Qaeda. Call it Gonzo journalism, call it cool, call it whatever you want. It matters.
Bryan Adams at The Concert Hall (Bravo!, 9 p.m.) is another kind of rock 'n' roll journey.
It's just Adams on guitar accompanied occasionally by keyboardist Gary Breit and once by a bagpiper. We get all the familiar hits reduced to their bare, guy-with-a-guitar starkness. Removed from the arena-rock setting, some songs work and some don't. Some seem very thin indeed. It's worth your time, though, just to hear Adams's spare version of Alberta Bound.
This Hour Has 22 Minutes (CBC, 8 p.m.) is a one-hour Christmas special of tomfoolery tonight. Apparently, "Santa Claus (Mark Critch) and his trusty Elf (Evan Solomon) visit Parliament Hill and spend time with Jack Layton, Michael Ignatieff and Gilles Duceppe." Tomfoolery: We need more of that too.
Check local listings.