Maybe all anyone needs to know about BET's 10-part " documentary series" on Michael Vick is that the NFL quarterback's production company, MV7, is one of the producing partners.
So don't expect Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles brothers or anything approaching the hard-eyed truth-telling of those legendary documentary filmmakers here - even though BET is trying to suggest such credibility by calling "The Michael Vick Project" a "documentary series."
This is more like reality TV, and it is all stacked in favor of making the man who went to prison for running a brutal dogfighting operation on his Virginia farm look like a mythic figure on a heroic quest - a protagonist on an epic journey, who has suffered tremendously and is now on the comeback trail to redemption, fighting righteously against great odds.
I am not exaggerating. The narrative of this series is clearly laid out in a reality-TV-like portentous voice-over at the start of the series.
As the film opens on a montage of images of an inner-city housing development, blighted urban landscapes and Michael Vick through the years, viewers are told: "Against all odds, one man escaped and uplifted a family. But his humble beginnings led to a tragic downfall. But from darkness, he saw the light. Now, blessed with a second chance, he must once again rise above to heal his family, his community, his legacy."
The big opening concludes with Vick, looking hard into the camera and saying, "I'm Michael Vick. My fall from grace was tragic. But it was all my fault, and I'm a on a mission to get everything back. Not the money and the fame, but to restore my family's good name. This is 'The Michael Vick Project.' "
And yet, as bad as that might sound, this is a series that matters, one that I can't wait to see more of beyond the first episode made available to critics. The sociology of Michael Vick as what cultural critics call a "social location" is right up there with that of such pop-culture figures as Madonna or Kate Gosselin or Michael Jackson. Vick is a lightning rod for some of the most powerful, contradictory and emotionally charged issues and currents in American life.
He is expected to be in Baltimore in March for the Ed Block Courage Award dinner, and there will surely be protests from animal lovers. Many are outraged that Vick, the former owner of Bad Newz Kennels, where dogs were electrocuted and hanged as punishment for not fighting hard enough, is the Philadelphia Eagles' pick for a distinguished award named after a former trainer of the Baltimore Colts.
The players on each NFL team select a winner for his "inspirational" efforts and courage - and the Eagles in December selected Vick, setting off wide-ranging debate and criticism. The award is aimed at "improving the lives of children and ending the cycle of abuse" in which some of them are involved.
Vick didn't help his cause when he reacted to the award by saying, "I've overcome a lot, more than probably one single individual can bear."
That's one cultural fault line on which he stands: the one that divides people who feel the lives of animals are precious vs. those who believe there is something wrong with people who think that way.
The PETA organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, helps define the line in its advocacy, and this group has been involved in protests against Vick in the wake of the revelations of abuse that took place at his hands and under his direction.
The documentary series exploits this tension in the opening sequence, adding a racial aspect to the story line, as if it were not already hot-button and hopped-up enough.
Right after the voice-over tells viewers that Vick "must rise above to heal his family, his community, his legacy," two protesters against Vick are shown. Both are young, white, blond women. And both are intensely emotional.
"Michael Vick is a sadistic dog-killer," says one.
"He's a sick man with sick behaviors, and I don't think he can do anything to redeem himself," says the other.
They are quickly left behind, as the sequence hurries ahead to embrace the image of Vick facing the camera to tell viewers how his "fall from grace was tragic" and that he is on a "mission to get everything back" - a mission to redeem himself, his family and his community, just like the heroes of ancient Greek mythology.
As you might have guessed by now, this is not a balanced portrait. This is hagiography - hero worship done for basic cable TV.
There is all the rhetoric about Vick and his "mission." There is also extensive testimony from Vick as to how he and his family cried and cried as he started his life in prison.
The filmmakers are very careful to make sure in the first episode that viewers see no close-up images of the victims of Bad Newz Kennels. Notice how quickly the dogfighting history is dispensed with, even though it is the catalyst for what the football star calls his "tragic fall from grace."