Jackson miniseries is no thriller, it's just bad

November 13, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,TV Critic

All right, "Sinatra," the CBS miniseries about Frank Sinatra, was awful. But even at its worst, it never had anything that could compare with scenes featuring Michael Jackson as a small child talking to a rat in "The Jacksons: An American Dream," an ABC miniseries about the Jackson family that begins Sunday.

"You're my friend, Mr. Rat, and I could use one," little Michael says in his first meeting with the rodent late one night in the kitchen of the Jacksons' Gary, Ind., home when all the other family members are asleep.

"Things be so hard," he continues, as the camera moves in for a close-up of the rat. "When somebody hits you it takes something out of you. It hurts way inside. . . . You're my best friend, Mr. Rat. You're the only one who listens to me. You're the only one who understands me."

Didn't it strike anyone at ABC that there was something wrong with this picture, which the network is trying to sell as the "real, inside story" of the Jacksons? Forget the rat-boy stuff. What about the fact that a 7-year-old child is explaining the psychology of victimization in the language of an adult?

There are a number of moments in ABC's five-hour mishmash of Jackson history that are equally tortured and implausible. "The Jacksons," which looks as though it could have been a decent two-hour made-for-TV movie, is a case study of almost everything that can go wrong when TV does big-budget, celebrity biography.

The central problem is that to get the story made, ABC had to let the family control it (Jermaine Jackson and his wife are producers). But to give it a degree of credibility, they had to deal with public allegations leveled by some of the children against Joseph Jackson, the father -- such as charges of physical abuse. La Toya, who has made the most serious accusations against her father, is the one Jackson who did not participate in the miniseries.

The result is a goofy compromise in which the bad is more or less acknowledged. But then the filmmakers attempt to either justify it or wash it away with some crackpot explanation.

The rat-boy scene described above is typical. It comes right after Joseph had attempted to give Michael a whipping for not picking his shoes.

The real Michael has described awful beatings from his father. But in the movie, each time his father wants to beat him, Michael scampers away and the scene is played as cute and funny.

So why is Michael telling Mr. Rat how the beatings "take something out of you," if he always manages to scamper away and it is something we should think of as cute or funny?

The overall suggestion is that Michael talks to rats and generally acts the way he does because of Joseph's violence. But the final assessment we are given from Katherine Jackson, Michael's mother, is simply that Michael's the way he is because he's "so sensitive."

The production is five hours of that kind of back-and-forth contradiction and confusion.

The big story line, of course, is the Jackson family using its musical talents to go from the steel mills of Gary to the good life of Los Angeles -- upward mobility, the American Dream and all that Horatio Alger business. The journey is ultimately used to justify Joseph's alleged abuse. The idea is that he literally whipped the children into becoming a great musical act.

That's a potentially powerful story, but for it to have worked two things needed to happen.

To make it entertaining, the music would have to be great and moving -- as it is in, say, the film, "The Commitments." But an 8-year-old singing, "One, two, three, it's easy as A-B-C," doesn't have quite the same impact as "Try a Little Tenderness."

And, to make it meaningful, the journey needs context. We'd have to have a real sense of the racism and roadblocks to economic progress that the children of an under-educated, African-American steelworker in Gary faced. Again, "The Commitments" spent the time and had the nerve to show the grinding poverty and class oppression that drove the members of that band. "The Jacksons" is long on time and way short on guts.

In the end, Michael's probably right about Mr. Rat: He is the only one who understands Michael. "The Jacksons: An American Dream" certainly doesn't add to our understanding of the family or its most famous member.

JACKSON MINISERIES

What: 'The Jacksons: An American Dream'

When: Sunday, 8 p.m. and Wednesday, 9 p.m.

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

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