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Unsettling Reality Show of a Celebrity Defendant Begins

January 17, 2004|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

True to form, and just in time for the new celebrity trial-of-the-century-of-the-week season, Michael Jackson completely redefined the perp TV genre during his arraignment Friday. He turned the proceedings into his very own party, complete with engraved invitations, garden tents and waiters in white ties.

From the moment the self-proclaimed "king of pop" arrived at the Santa Maria courthouse, 20 minutes late, with what appeared to be a personal videographer by his side, it was clear that Jackson was taking the Norma Desmond/Blanche Dubois approach to defendant-hood.

By barring cameras from the courtroom, prosecutors allowed Jackson to pick the time and place for his close-up, and placed the courtroom, in effect, off stage.

Jackson essentially threw a scarf over the light bulb and pretended the nice, burly bodyguards were escorting him to a concert.

There also was no doubting that the lunatics had taken over the asylum Friday, when Jackson declined to walk the brisk walk of the defendant, or modestly avert the eye. For what is surely the first time in recent history, the defendant, who faces seven counts of child molestation, took the concept of looking "all-business" to mean his business.

Thanks to ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and others, we saw Jackson -- dressed in what appeared to be a Hogwarts school jacket, a Prussian medal of honor, an armband of indeterminate meaning and toy soldier pants -- work the crowd and bust some moves on the roof of his GMC Yukon. In what would appear to be an attempt to establish grounds for an insanity plea, he then invited the throng over for a tea party at Neverland ranch, where they would frolic on trampolines.

But perhaps more likely, Jackson had never before met a crowd that didn't love him (at least in his mind) and was therefore simply unequipped to react in any other way to a media circus in which he occupied center ring -- all morning, until the networks went back to their regular programming, only to come running back when Jackson clambered atop the SUV.

Cable news, predictably, was good for the excruciatingly faithful coverage. CNN even joked about bringing us live pictures of "some doors," through which Jackson would eventually emerge, but only MSNBC seemed to stick around for the after-party.

Jackson defense attorneys Mark Geragos -- who opposed the gag order -- and Benjamin Brafman seemed surprised by the dance recital. But the Jackson "dream team" was surely aware that there's nothing like the support of a frenzied fan base to distract from serious charges.

One man's outpouring of support may be another's attempt to taint the jury pool, as some legal analysts have suggested, but the marshaling of mindless, rabid fan-power may turn out to be the next big thing in celebrity trials.

Outside the Santa Maria courthouse, vendors set up food booths and T-shirt stands, and gospel singers and break dancers let the spirit move them; the spirit of Jackson's megawatt fame, naturally, not the specter of prison hovering over him.

It may be too late for Enron's Andrew Fastow, but up-and-coming celebrity defendants might want to take note: Facing criminal charges? Forget old-school arraignment demeanors, which required that sad, beleaguered, pasty or otherwise downtrodden look. Celebrate the charges against you. Embrace trial. And maybe most important, try converting the criminal proceedings against you into a global marketing opportunity.

As Martha, Kobe and Robert Blake -- maybe even Scott Peterson -- get ready to come to a TV set near us, they may take heart.

That's because one clear lesson from Jackson's media circus Friday is that celebrity defendants shouldn't underestimate the power of the peanut gallery. Indeed, next week, the Trio network will debut a new documentary-style series that addresses this very phenomenon.

Based on the classic 1980s documentary short "Heavy Metal Parking Lot," which ambled around the periphery of a Judas Priest concert in Maryland and plumbed the shallows of acid-washed heavy metal-fandom, Trio's "Parking Lot" will roam the similarly teeming asphalt fringes surrounding concerts, awards shows and sporting events. (No doubt the series' producers are cursing the forces of fate that made Michael Jackson's Friday arraignment take place after production had wrapped.)

As evidenced by the 60 lucky lottery winners allowed inside the courtroom -- who burst into applause as each member of the Jackson family entered the hall, and wept with joy at the sight of Janet Jackson -- the parking lot has become the stage.

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