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Michael Jackson Mania: ‘Apocalypse Now’ in the Valley

A real-time review of Tuesday’s festivities:

Michael Jackson mania began early for me this morning, when I could hear the buzz of media helicopters zooming above the 101 freeway around 8 a.m. as they followed the funeral motorcade from Encino to Forest Lawn and eventually Staples Center. Either that, or the West Valley just declared war on the East Valley, in which case I will be retreating into my critic’s bunker and updating these posts only sporadically.

“It will be a celebration,” “Good Morning America’s” Robin Roberts said from outside Staples. Or some sort of melee, but let’s go with celebration for now.

At Fox News Channel, Greta Van Susteren took a break from shilling for Sarah Palin to cover the funeral, which seemed oddly appropriate. I’ve never seen someone so excited by a sound check before.

While CNN’s Don Lemon giddily clutched a souvenir program from the memorial as if he’d just won the lottery, Anderson Cooper interviewed “Jackson’s former publicist,” Stuart Backerman, and actually asked a decent question — namely, what happened to that cute little boy who fronted the Jackson 5?

Backerman did provide some insight, saying of the Martin Bashir interview with Jackson on ABC, “He died that night. … He knew he shot himself in the foot … and he never recovered.” Indeed, MSNBC repeated the Bashir interview on Monday night, and as train wrecks go, it remains utterly riveting — as well as a testimonial to what at best can be called Jackson’s eccentricities that makes the worshipful tone characterizing much of this coverage even more questionable.

But enough of that. Around 9 a.m. PT, the obsession of the moment has become whether Jackson’s casket will indeed be at the memorial service. More aerial shots of lots and lots of black cars. Newscasters are reporting that plans for the Staples event are now about an hour behind schedule, suggesting this ordeal might not actually end until Wednesday or Thursday.

KABC-TV has “entertainment guru” George Pennacchio with anchor Marc Brown outside Staples, and Brown just compared the atmosphere to the Oscars, adding that there were some people there “who I will describe charitably as odd.” I assume he was talking about the fans, not the media.

OK, here we go: The motorcade is on the move! They’re passing the Los Angeles Zoo. Wonder who’s directing traffic for all those helicopters. As for traffic on the freeway, yikes, it looks even worse than usual.

Fox News is interviewing Brian Oxman, whose credentials as a “former Jackson family attorney” have been pretty well skewered by Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Rainey in a recent column, but hey, I suppose you have to kill time somehow. Jumping ahead, Oxman also turned up later during the service on CBS. (Full disclosure: This seemed like a good time to take a shower. If I missed anything important — and seriously, what are the odds of that? — my apologies.)

9:50 a.m.: Wow, the motorcade made fabulous time. It’s amazing how well traffic can move in L.A. when you have a few thousand cops directing it. Some idiot on KTLA just said how this is all completely justified and nobody would question the resources being committed to it. Please don’t speak for the rest of us, Barbie.

Fox’s Shepard Smith is reading a list of the luminaries scheduled to attend and perhaps participate. Smith has the right attitude, wondering just how long this event might drag on. “What sort of crazy somethin’ or other is going to happen,” he just muttered, in a stream-of-consciousness rant, saying the coverage would continue “for the foreseeable future.” God, let’s hope not.

10:05 a.m.: The big-name network anchors are on the job. CBS is interviewing fans behind the barricades. ABC’s Cynthia McFadden is sending grainy video out of the lobby to Charles Gibson. CBS’ Katie Couric is interviewing Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds outside of Staples. NBC’s Lester Holt compared this moment to the arrival of a new Pope, which, given the Catholic Church and Jackson’s shared history, is perhaps a particularly unfortunate analogy.

10:14 a.m.: Showtime. Or nope, actually, a false alarm: Smokey Robinson reads some opening messages, and then disappears. Camera flashes everywhere, even though nothing much appears to be happening. Back in the studio ABC has, perhaps inevitably, trotted out Bashir, who built his U.S. career on the Jackson interview, to discuss “the complex parts” of Jackson’s life, and how the focus has shifted back to his music.

The networks have a lot of time to fill here waiting for the actual ceremony to begin, and I think if you listen closely to his voice, a little part of Brian Williams is dying inside him right now.

10:32 a.m.: Showtime, Part II. A choir sings and people are cheering the arrival of the casket, which, again, Lionelrichie seems like a bit of a mixed message, folks. This is supposed to be a memorial service, not a Kid Rock concert.

Queen Latifah reads a poem by Maya Angelou, in between songs by Mariah Carey and Lionel Richie. Motown founder Berry Gordy eulogizes Jackson, acknowledging that Jackson had made some “questionable decisions” while lauding him as “the greatest entertainer that ever lived.” Perhaps so, but even the video tribute to Jackson is filled with bizarre images, such as Jackson kissing a chimp.

11:09 a.m.: Stevie Wonder sings. Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant speak. Jennifer Hudson sings. And now Al Sharpton is thundering away about how Jackson brought the world — black and white — together, paving the way for “a person of color to be the president of the United States of America.”

Shields And presto, I can already see what part of this thing is going to lead on “Hannity” tonight.

11:45 a.m.: Hopefully, the end is in sight. Brooke Shields is reading from “The Little Prince,” a book I really loved until, well, right about now.

11:55 a.m.: Martin Luther King Jr.’s children praise Jackson and speak of the persecution he faced. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas felt compelled to point out that in America, those accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty. Lee brandishes a resolution from the House of Representatives proclaiming Jackson a legend and a musical icon. One suspects “Hannity’s” gonna have a field day with that as well.

12:14 p.m.: Robinson returns with his own reminiscence about Jackson as a young boy. Unlike many of the speakers, he’s funny, warm, speaking strictly from the heart. “I love you my brother. I celebrate your life,” Robinson says. This would be a perfect place to end things. Fingers crossed, but no, here comes a little boy who was a finalist from “Britain’s Got Talent,” and we’ve officially crossed the threshold from “Televised memorial tribute” into “hostage situation.”

12:25 p.m.: Inevitable performance of “We Are the World,” as a horde of performers fill the stage. This is crass, I realize, but I can’t help but wonder if the Jackson brothers are thinking that this is the last time this many people will ever see them on a stage together.

I think that’s it. Total running time: Just under 2 hours. “I can’t think of a more appropriate way to end the service,” Couric says.

But no, it’s not over. They’re doing a kind of encore of “Heal the World.” If this keeps up this thing might be longer than the “Transformers” sequel.

12:35 p.m.: Jermaine Jackson dismisses the crowd (and more significantly, the assembled networks). But no, the other siblings are going to speak as well. Marlon tells a weird story about recognizing Michael wearing a disguise. “Maybe now Michael they will leave you alone,” he says. One of Jackson’s children speaks.

12:41 p.m.: At 2 hours, 10 minutes, it’s over — except for a closing invocation that nobody seems to care about . Or rather, it’s over for now.

Couric signs off at 12:45, but elsewhere the analysis continues. “It was a marvelous show, but it wasn’t a circus,” ABC’s Cynthia McFadden said.

Hey, just ’cause there were no elephants doesn’t mean it’s not a circus.

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