He isn't seen often and the segments on his death take up a surprisingly few minutes onscreen over the first two episodes. But the ghost of Michael Jackson hovers like a chilling pall over every moment of the four surviving Jackson brothers' new six-episode unscripted series, The Jack5ons: A Family Dynasty. (It debuts at 9 tonight on A&E.)
It must be difficult to work in an industry where, the moment you start a new project, the first question is: Will your superstar brother be involved?
But even before the series tries tackling the touchy subject of Jackson's death this summer, the very concept of a reality show built around the four lesser-known Jackson brothers trying a Michael-less reunion brings a jarring question:
How do you reunite a legendary pop band without its lead singer?
"The only problem we have now is that we don't have Michael," producer Terry Lewis tells the camera in the second episode. "It was the Jackson Five, not the Jackson Four."
But that reality seems lost on poor Jermaine, Marlon, Tito and Jackie, who fumble before the cameras, trying to pull together a Jackson Five-minus-one reunion before their brother's death lands in the middle of production. They fight, visit old haunts and chat up producers in scenes that seem as staged as MJ's awkward smooch of Lisa Marie Presley at the MTV Video Music Awards long ago.
"We know he would want us to continue on, and that's why this show is very important," Jermaine told reporters during a conference call interview. "We got a chance to be ourselves offstage."
Actually, no. What is most frustrating about this show from A&E is that we don't see the Jacksons unfiltered beyond a few petty squabbles. Missed opportunities include: the moment when anyone in the family found out about Michael Jackson's death; the family's attempts to plan a memorial service; the precise way Jermaine's attempt to organize a tribute concert in Vienna (huh?) unraveled; any contact with patriarch Joe Jackson.
What emerges instead is the portrait of a project that looks like a pipe dream; middle-aged guys struggling to appear relevant in an industry that's so different, it's like silent film stars trying to make the next Star Wars movie.
• Tito and Marlon returning to their Gary hometown with two of their kids, supposedly to reconnect with their roots. The visit mostly consisted of a stop by their empty, old home and schmoozing with school kids and politicians. Probably because they haven't lived in Gary for 40 years.
• Jermaine breaking into tears while talking with the brothers about an incident that is barely explained on camera; the moment in 1976 when father Joe Jackson moved the group from Motown to Epic Records. Jermaine, who was married to Motown owner Berry Gordy's daughter then, did not join his brothers and became a solo artist, replaced by brother Randy in the group, which was retitled The Jacksons.
• Jermaine and Tito trying to explain to legendary producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis what their new songs should say. Before long, you realize, they don't have anything to say beyond wanting a hit record. Which is not a good sign.
ABC's of picking political pundit
When you click over to ABC's Sunday politics show This Week today, spare a bit of pity for George Stephanopoulos. The pint-sized political pundit is about to become the Hardest Working Man in Television, taking on anchor duties for Good Morning America and This Week simultaneously, guaranteeing a seven-day-a-week work schedule. To ease his burden quicker, here's a roster of folks ABC should consider as his successor. .
Gwen Ifill: The longtime PBS anchor joined the rotation of three heading up the revamped NewsHour, but the former New York Times correspondent, author and ex-NBC correspondent deserves a wider platform. .
Bill Maher: In part, because Jon Stewart would never take the gig, I suggest America's second-coolest political satirist. He'd have to curb the F-bombs and religious jokes, but Maher is a fearless stalker of political hypocrisy and American stupidity.
Rachel Maddow: Sure, this MSNBC personality has been a liberal pundit for a long while, but if Stephanopoulos can overcome working in the Clinton White House, Maddow's smart and savvy enough to tackle a gig requiring a more evenhanded tone.
Glenn Beck: The only problem with hiring away Fox News Channel's biggest new star is that This Week's guests would mostly be stuck watching Beck cry about the coming political apocalypse. But his fondness for chalkboards means saving loads on computer graphics.
Oprah Winfrey: I hear her calendar is going to open up a bit on Sept. 9.