Taking on Tyson reviewed: Mike Tyson loves pigeons.

Taking on Tyson reviewed: Mike Tyson loves pigeons.

Taking on Tyson reviewed: Mike Tyson loves pigeons.

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March 4 2011 7:30 PM

Taking on Tyson

The former heavyweight champion loves pigeons.

Taking on Tyson.
Taking on Tyson

Taking On Tyson  (Animal Planet, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET) is an urban melodrama of a reality show that feels at once unlikely and inevitable, an effort by Mike Tyson to introduce us to the world of pigeon racing. In one corner, we have a man who was once the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and whose reputation for ingeniousness in the ring has long since been eclipsed by his crimes against womanhood and offenses against sportsmanship. In the other, we have a species defamed, at least since Woody Allen's Stardust Memories (1980), as "rats with wings." Clearly this show is a project in image rehab. As such, it's the birds that have the more to gain. It has been 19 years since Tyson's rape conviction and 14 since his sociopathic snack on Evander Holyfield's auriculea, and Tyson's image is as about as rehabilitated as it can be. The year 2009 marked both a turning point (or maybe a terminus), with James Toback's documentary profile recasting a presumed monster as merely a troubled human, and The Hangover, in which Tyson generously played himself as a light-operatic buffoon, further serving to neutralize bad vibes. The savage has made way for an existential figure ready to laugh at himself, if only to feel a bit less lonely. In the pilot of Taking on Tyson, he takes his best shot at playing a regular rags-to-riches-to-raging-self-destruction-to-tentative-redemption kind of guy, and the producers help him out. To a certain extent. They do have a freak show to administrate, after all. I mean, when I dropped by the premiere party on Wednesday, I could not help but notice that copies of the tribal tattoo that berserkly adorns the boxer's face figured prominently in the decorating scheme. Meanwhile, one wonders whether pigeons are beyond redemption and, if not, why. What, beyond crapping on a new sportscoat or a fresh wax job, have they ever done to you? Why should they be the subject of so many gripes, the object of so much verbal abuse? Are not seagulls twice as nasty? It may simply be that, during those moments when living in the city feels like being the victim of a crime, the omnipresent pigeon serves as a convenient fall guy—a sort of synecdoche for urban indignity. It is a mission of Taking On Tyson to elevate the status of these animals, and it is a matter of Tyson's psychology to identify with them. "They're so much like people," he says, with feeling. "There's no one who can even match me, and it's the same way I feel about the birds," he boasts, somewhat touchingly. Here Tyson tells the story, not for the first time, of having raised pigeons as a kid back in horrible Brownsville, Brooklyn, and of getting into his first fight at the age of 10 "because the guy ripped the head off my pigeon." A pigeon is a dove, and this show is what it sounds like when doves cry. These days, Tyson reportedly keeps some 300-odd birds in Arizona, but the show brings him back to the Tri-State Area, where he introduces us to other characters who breed and raise and race the birds. Outside the apartment building he grew up in, he protests woundedly to the camera: "I'm proud that I'm from here. Yeah, I'm proud." The soundtrack blares with plaintive sax music, which is replaced with Italian strings when the boxer visits fellow pigeon racers out in New Jersey. The third episode is said to feature a charity pigeon race. What does one wear to a pigeon race? Do ladies don big, broad-brimmed Kentucky Derby-type hats? Or is a Yankees cap more correct? Time will tell.

Troy Patterson is Slate’s writer at large and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.