There was a terrific gag on Richard Pryor’s short-lived variety show where the Pips performed without Gladys Knight. Introduced as “… and the Pips,” they sang only their parts (as in “Woo-woo” and “Leavin’?”) on “Midnight Train to Georgia.” “The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty” is essentially that joke transformed into an entire reality show, as Michael Jackson’s surviving brothers go about the humbling task of trying to jump-start their moribund careers 40 years after the act began. The brothers take umbrage at suggestions they’re “cashing in” on Michael’s death, but that’s certainly how the timing works out for A&E.
Launching with back-to-back one-hour episodes, the series was apparently going to be a special — at least, if you believe what’s said at the outset by stars/exec producers Jermaine, Jackie, Tito and Marlon Jackson — that started filming months before Michael died. The premiere opens June 16 — nine days prior to that event — but jumps around a bit, documenting the other brothers as they prepare to tour and return to the recording studio.
Like most has-been reality players, the Jacksons don’t appear entirely comfortable inviting cameras in, but dutifully stage every key moment — from their session with a choreographer to a meeting about whether Jermaine is fully committed to the comeback — for the program’s benefit.
The problem, alas, is that they’re not a particularly interesting bunch; “strange” is more like it — from Tito, who perpetually sports a bowler hat resembling the one worn by Oddjob in “Goldfinger” to their chatter about the “give and take” of celebrity (paparazzi dog them) and how Michael was “tortured” by the media.
As is so often the case with such endeavors, the producers’ unseen hands are evident pulling puppet strings to create a semblance of drama, which include having the brothers visit their home town of Gary, Indiana, and address how their controversial dad, Joe, “made us who we are today.”
Yet despite their participation as producers, the Jackson Four can’t entirely control the way the cameras portray them — or how defensive they sound about capitalizing on the media frenzy surrounding their brother.
The second hour, provocatively titled “Aftermath,” deals more directly with those issues, but not in an especially enlightening, convincing or flattering manner. A planned Michael Jackson tribute concert in Europe falls apart, with scant explanation, and Jermaine blows off a photo shoot, leaving the remainder of the quartet both grumbling and simultaneously denying any ill feelings or internal discord.
Far from trading on Michael’s name, the exasperated brothers insist, their goal is merely “to keep this legacy alive, especially in a dignified way.”
But for all but the most ardent Jackson defenders, it’s a little late for “dignified.” Fortunately for the Jackson brood and A&E, there’s still the possibility of “lucrative.”