Television

Off the Wall

ABC’s case against Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson
Take a look at yourself, man in the mirror

Michael Jackson, apparently, was covered with “spots” as a teenager and now believes that his children might be snatched in a “multimillion-pound” kidnapping.

Pounds? Spots?! Why did Martin Bashir, a British journalist, not bother to learn American English before interviewing Michael Jackson? The better to put words in Jackson’s mouth?

Living With Michael Jackson, Bashir’s English documentary, aired Monday in Britain, then made its American debut Thursday at 8 p.m. on ABC’s 20/20. Yes, Jackson looks whittled and blanched; he spends weeks in Vegas among wax mannequins of monstrous-looking servants; and he speaks nervously about women in a way that suggests his turbulent sexuality. But Bashir’s blundering misunderstandings of Jackson’s idiom, and impositions of his own, force scandal even where there is none.

Take just one example.

Bashir: “How much do you think you’re worth?”

Jackson: “It’s way up there.”

Bashir: “How much?”

Jackson: “Come on, Martin.”

Bashir: “A billion dollars?”

Jackson: “It’s over there.”

Bashir: “Over a billion dollars!”

Here Bashir reclines, having gotten his gotcha. But for Jackson, “over there” is clearly a noncommittal hedge, a phrase meaning “in that area.” And yet, in one of the 20/20 intros, Barbara Walters takes great care to point out that ABC’s reporters had checked Jackson’s math, determining that he’s worth no more than a few hundred million. Caught! Liar!

And so it goes, with Jackson acting no weirder than Andy Warhol or Bob Dylan. Bashir responds with so much horror that everything Jackson says, even that he likes video games, sounds felonious. By treating his subject as a cretin, Bashir refuses to let Jackson be who he is—a talented and very eccentric musician. This overhyped documentary receives its fairest critique from Jackson himself: “Everything can be strange to someone. This interview is strange to some people out there. So who cares, right?” (Jackson has since filed complaints about the documentary with the Broadcasting Standards Commission and the Independent Television Commission.)

Still, what about the masks Jackson has his three children wear? What about Gavin, 12, who sleeps in Jackson’s bed while Jackson, more or less, sleeps on the floor? What about the frantic way that Jackson jiggles his infant son, Prince Michael II “Blanket” Jackson, accidentally jamming the baby’s silk head scarf into his mouth as he struggles to bottle-feed him, the day after publicly dangling him from a balcony in Berlin?

All of this is miserable to watch, but, as evidence for the get-Jackson prosecution, it’s a wash. The movie is likely to excite only connoisseurs of Jackson’s skin and bones. (And they have NBC’s all-nose Dateline to look forward to.) Here in America, we’ve seen a lot of Jackson: We saw him turn from black to white, from hero to villain, from pop king to witness for his own defense in his 1993 child-abuse trial. Ever since Joseph Jackson of Gary, Ind., lifted his hand to his young son to make him sing, something’s been not right with the child. But we’ve known that for a long time.