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TELEVISION REVIEW

Jackson memorial: both affirmation and denial

With no practical reason for so much coverage, we see the power of pop culture that a broadcaster ignores at its own peril. Death, for a moment, wipes a slate clean.

July 08, 2009|ROBERT LLOYD | TELEVISION CRITIC

The protracted departure of Michael Jackson from this world formally ended Tuesday morning with a private funeral at Forest Lawn and a public memorial at Staples Center. The first event was seen from afar, on television and so by the world, primarily as a sequence of arriving and departing black cars. The latter was planned from the start as a television event and carried live by all the major broadcast and cable news networks. The stars of the evening news were all on site, blinking in the sun outside the very arena where Jackson had been rehearsing his upcoming return to the stage.

Like the gold-plated casket in which he was laid to rest, and which sat before the stage at Staples Center, the day provided the brighter coda to the darker days that preceded it. The memorial service, often referred to by reporters or commentators as a "show," seemed staged as if in partial recompense -- to Jackson himself, even more than his audience -- for the 50 London shows he'll never play. As does most any memorial service, it mixed mourning with celebration, laughter with tears. But in the way that it was universally reported on, from before its beginning until after its end, it also seemed a kind of apology for prior doubting or nasty press. Death, for a moment, wipes a slate clean.

You can say that the world has been divided in recent days into people who wondered what the fuss was about and people offended by the thought that anyone would wonder what the fuss was about. Practically speaking, there was no call for that much coverage -- one network's was very much like another's, and once the memorial itself began, the feed was identical. But there is a power to pop culture that a broadcaster ignores at its own peril, and once one network had signed on for the full run, it was inevitable that others would. In the end, everyone came.

"Circus" was a word often used in expectation of the event. You had to wonder, said Shepard Smith of Fox News Channel, "what sort of crazy something-or-other is going to happen, because Michael Jackson is in the house, and when Michael Jackson is in the house, crazy things happen." But pandemonium never erupted, and to the extent that a circus atmosphere reigned, it was one created and embodied by the media themselves.

"It's got to be chilling for the family to have 20 helicopters overhead as you're trying to mourn the passing of a relative," KTLA's Asha Blake said as her station filmed the mourners from a helicopter.

Overall, the early-morning coverage was tedious, trivial and trivializing, the natural result of talking heads required to keep talking when there is nothing much happening and little idea of what's about to. ("And up next," said Meredith Vieira on NBC's "Today," "a visit with the King of Pop's onetime best friend -- Bubbles the chimp.")

The tone improved once the memorial began. Perhaps because of the speed with which it was assembled, it was surprisingly straightforward -- in its dignified modesty as far as could be imagined from the experience of a Michael Jackson concert, or of the sort of tribute that a television network might have assembled. The songs, performed by artists including Mariah Carey, Stevie Wonder, Usher, Jennifer Hudson and Lionel Richie, embraced the gospel and inspirational.

And together with testimonials from Queen Latifah, Magic Johnson (he "made me a better point guard"), Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), the Rev. Al Sharpton and others, they created a story of roots and continuity that argued for Jackson -- his pale alien mien and crossover appeal notwithstanding -- as a fundamentally black artist and a specifically black American role model.

Every memorial is both an affirmation and a denial; we are all darker than the words that will attend our passing. Far from the good being interred with his bones, Jackson's better self was sprinkled over the stage and to the watching world like fairy dust from Neverland.

Even as childhood friend Brooke Shields described him in a way more than one observer later called "humanizing," his memory was garlanded with superlatives. He was pictured as saintly, not just in his charitable good works and love for the world, but in his public martyrdom.

"We will never understand what he endured," said brother Marlon, as the Jackson family, including Michael's 11-year-old daughter, Paris, took the stage at the memorial's end, "not being able to walk across a street without a crowd gathering around him, being judged, ridiculed."

But for Motown founder Berry Gordy's allusion to "some bad times and maybe some questionable decisions on his part," the judgment here was all reflected outward. Addressing himself to the Jackson children in the front row, Sharpton said, "There wasn't nothing strange about your daddy. It was strange what he had to deal with."

There were, of course, many strange things about Michael Jackson; he was only human.

--

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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