Between last night's tawdry ABC Prime Time Live special chronicling Michael Jackson's "special friendships" with a series of young boys over the years (including former child stars Corey Feldman and Macaulay Culkin); the far more thoughtful documentary Michael Jackson's Secret Childhood, airing throughout the month on VH1; and today's release of 1,903 pages of testimony from last year's grand jury proceedings on the Smoking Gun Web site, we're getting into a weird cultural area, Jackson-wise. Not that our relationship to the pop star was ever what you'd call wholesome, but I, for one, never thought I'd be sipping my morning coffee while reading about Michael Jackson's striped penis. According to a detective who investigated the 1993 molestation case that Jackson settled out of court, the singer's private parts are easily identifiable because of the "brown circles," a result of twice-weekly skin bleaching, that make his world-famous wing-wang resemble a "barber's pole."
So far, the blogosphere has reacted to this tidbit with a kind of coy faux-revulsion— Too Much Information! Gag me with a spoon! But I say, bring it on. Let's all think about Michael Jackson's penis, shall we? You know you are, anyway. It's the nexus of our obsession with this black/white child/man, this changeling of our own creation. It's the site of his mysterious, disturbing, ultimately unknowable sexual desire, and also—if these new claims are to be believed—of his ambiguous racial status. Slate's Dahlia Lithwick recently explored the ambivalence of Jackson's public persona, his ability (until now, at least) to seem to exist in between boundaries, outside the strict black-and-white logic of the law. In one of those crystalline formulations bound to make other writers weep with envy, she wrote, "No one believed it was possible to walk both forward and backward at the same time until Michael Jackson came along. That was his genius." Today's "barber-pole" revelation may seem like prurient trivia, but think about it: The key piece of physical evidence in the biggest child-molestation trial of the new century may be the sex organ of a man who is neither black nor white, and whose uneasy transition between races is inscribed on his very skin. How many uniquely American obsessions—our racial self-loathing, our craze for cosmetic "self-improvement," our strange combination of salaciousness and prudery—converge in our collective imagination of that bit of flesh?
It was around this time last year that the country began to fixate on Janet Jackson's right breast as if it were some saintly relic, a kind of talisman (not unlike the penis-shaped charm necklace she reportedly wears around her neck). We talked about Janet's breast till it took on a life of its own. Like a behemoth from some Japanese horror film, that breast crushed a nation; its gargantuan shadow still looms over an entertainment industry cowed by the moral-values coalition, and a newly emboldened and politicized FCC. Have we fallen under the spell of another Jackson body part? Will 2005 be the year of the penis? ... 2:50 p.m.
Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2005
A new page on the MSNBC website gushes, "There's a brand new show on MSNBC starring Ron Reagan and Monica Crowley ... and someone even more important ... YOU." Me? On TV? Yes, apparently via a technology known as "e-mail," even those of us who aren't former assistants to, or sons of, U.S. presidents can get our voices heard on Connected Coast to Coast, astudiedly innovative new talk show which will air every weekday in two separate segments, one at noon and one at 5 PM ET. Crowley, the blond conservative, will report from MSNBC headquarters in New Jersey, while Reagan, the lefty brunette, co-hosts from the network's offices in Redmond, Washington. In addition to "informed […] debate on topics from politics to pop culture," Connected Coast to Coast promises an "emphasis on the latest news and buzz in the online community."
After two days' worth of CC2C (and remember, that's four shows; the afternoon hour is not a repeat of, but an expansion on the earlier segment), I'm still a bit confused. What exactly is Ron Reagan doing in Washington, besides being handsomely framed by a painting of the Space Needle? Nothing against the upper-left-hand corner of the US map, but it's not clear how the vague sense of coast-to-coastness telegraphed by the two-state format is supposed to make up for the awkwardness of seeing our co-hosts only on two separate video screens. If the whole show's going to take place in the studio anyway, why not put Reagan and Crowley on the same coast, where they can match wits in person?
Maybe the producers' choice to keep Crowley and Reagan 3,000 miles from each other is part of cable's post-Crossfire commitment to civility. According to Reagan's first blog post on the CC2C website, "we both believe that there's a different way to have a conversation— or even argument—on TV, one that doesn't involve high decibel harangues and spittle-flecked diatribes." But based on the first two days' worth of shows, Connected could benefit from a little more airborne expectorate. In this morning's conversation about stem-cell research -- one of Ron Reagan's pet topics -- a guest demanded to know, "If a fertility clinic were on fire, and you had somebody lying unconscious on the floor next to a tank full of embryos, which would you save?" It was a provocative parlor-game challenge that could have led to a larger discussion about how we conceive of the moral status of the embryo. Unfortunately, the conversation foundered in niceness when neither Reagan nor Crowley answered the question, or challenged their guests to do so.
As for the much-trumpeted interactive aspect of Connected Coast to Coast, the majority of MSNBC's talk shows already have blogs attached to them, and Fox News' Bill O'Reilly regularly answers reader e-mail on the air. But CC2C is gamely trying to up the webbiness factor, even going so far as to suggest that each day's second installment will incorporate reader feedback from the one that ended three hours earlier. (Note to recent college grads: internships on this show may be hazardous to your health.) In a segment yesterday afternoon, Joe Trippi made a brief cameo to recommend breaking blog stories of the day (one of them appearing on Atrios, another on Seetheforest, and a third on CC2C's own website.) The whole time Trippi spoke, the site's URLs remained onscreen beside him for handy at-home browsing – one of the first televised acknowledgements I've seen of the increasingly common practice of watching TV and websurfing at the same time (hell, I'm doing it right now!). I think CC2C's producers would do well to replace the dreaded "news crawl" at the bottom of the screen with a permanent listing of both the URL and e-mail address of their own show, so viewers can participate even more easily. If only there was a way of making my opinion heard … some kind of, I don't know, interactive technology… 2:50 p.m.
Monday, Feb. 14, 2005
Going out on Valentines' Day is so overrated: the crowds, the overpriced prix-fixe menus, the sappy cooing at the next table drowning out your own sappy cooing. This year, stay in, buy a bottle of champagne, and test the theory that your true love is the one you have the most fun heckling the TV with. Here's a lineup of some of tonight's love-centric programming:
Some publicity-minded producer at PBS might have wanted to gently suggest a different title for Kinsey, a new 90-minute documentary about the revolutionary sex researcher that premieres tonight on American Experience (PBS, 9 p.m. ET). Though very nicely done, the doc echoes the recent Kinsey biopic detail for detail, right down to an identical sequence of Ella Fitzgerald singing "Too Darn Hot" under a montage of breathless headlines about the 1948 release of the "Kinsey report." Anyone who's seen the feature film will marvel at Liam Neeson's uncannily precise incarnation of the dour-looking, brush-cut Kinsey (while noting that the plain-looking Mrs. K. got a serious attractiveness upgrade in the casting of Laura Linney. Funny how that works). The documentary does go to a few darker places than the film, exploring such unsavory topics as Kinsey's personal taste for masochistic self-cutting, which is only briefly glimpsed in the fiction film. Interviewees include the novelist T.C. Boyle, whose recent book The Inner Circle chronicles the erotic misadventures of Kinsey's coterie of young scientists, and Kinsey's two daughters, who matter-of-factly provided their father with their own full sexual histories, thus redefining the concept of "buzz kill."
Another new documentary, Loving and Cheating (Cinemax, 7 p.m. ET) casts an uneasy eye on the state of monogamy in America. "The vast majority of American adults are not monogamous throughout their entire lives," declares a sexologist at the top of the hour. We spend the next hour hearing from couples in various stages of denial about that fact. One young man offers a shaky rationalization of male infidelity ("It doesn't count if it's just, like, a hooker in Ohio"), visibly discomfiting his more romantic fiancee. At the other extreme, a former male stripper and gigolo recounts the debauched early years of his marriage, as his wife of 17 years giggles girlishly next to him. A "polyamorous" couple, married 23 years, crack wise about their not-so-glamorous alternate lifestyle: "What's the difference between polyamory and swingers? Swingers are good-looking."
Loving & Cheating, like a good reality show, offers up one of television's most reliably entertaining spectacles: people deluding themselves and each other onscreen. It ends with some honest advice about dishonesty from the sex columnist Dan Savage: "We should think of monogamy the way we think of sobriety – you fall off the wagon, you can get back on again." If you do cheat, continues Dan, "Just shut up and try not to do it again. Let the other person still believe you are the person you misrepresented yourself as being in the first place."
I had high hopes that VH1's new series, I Married … (6 p.m. ET) might be a sexier version of that network's compulsively watchable Behind the Music. I Married … will provide a weekly glimpse into the conjugal life of a famous person (upcoming episodes include I Married Uncle Kracker, I Married Carnie Wilson, and, scariest of all, I Married Omarosa). Tonight's premiere, I Married Sammy Hagar, follows the former Van Halen frontman as he celebrates his 57th birthday in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, with his adoring wife Kari, a former model. Though I Married … makes for sweet watching, it lacks the gleeful schadenfreude of Behind the Music. In the end, it's a disappointingly hagiographic portrait of the rock-and-roll wife as vestal guardian of the domestic hearth: "He's the artiste, he's the one who's flying up in the rocket ship, and I'm on the ground just hanging onto his ankles."
Sammy and Kari walk the streets of Cabo arm in arm, impulse-purchasing a singularly hideous bronze sculpture of a cat as they share the secrets of their domestic bliss: "We've spent maybe 10 days apart max in 14 years." Awww. Things get even sweeter that night at the Hagars' club, the Cabo Wabo Cantina, when Kari, dressed as Marilyn Monroe, goes onstage to smash birthday cake in her husband's face as he tells a screaming, drunken crowd, "She's getting ****ed tonight."
If it's all just too romantic for your taste, you can always flip over to the USA channel for the opening night of the Westminster Dog Show (8 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET). Now that's a higher love. ... 1:00 p.m.