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CBS Primetime Wasted Gayle King’s R. Kelly Interview (Column)

CBS had a unique opportunity. Two months after “Surviving R. Kelly” premiered on Lifetime, and more than two decades after allegations of sexual abuse and pedophilia first arose against R. Kelly, Gayle King got to sit down with Kelly to get his comments. According to King, she managed to keep the interview going for 80 minutes — which is no small feat given how many Kelly interviews have ended with him storming out. Their face-off — featuring a steady King, a ranting Kelly, his alleged victims and their parents — hit “CBS This Morning” and the internet all week in segments running about ten minutes long. They were startling, upsetting, and undeniably riveting.

So it makes sense that CBS would seize the opportunity to create a primetime special out of the footage that so quickly captured viewers’ attention, which aired March 8 after incredibly high anticipation. But the resulting program, so obviously rushed to capitalize on the attention King’s interview had already gotten, is astonishing for all the wrong reasons.

“The Gayle King Interview with R. Kelly,” despite the promise of its title, barely uses any new footage of King speaking with Kelly. Instead, it tries to provide just as much context for the allegations, Kelly’s personal life, and his place in pop culture as “Surviving R. Kelly,” which had four hours to do so. It veers from the present to the past and back again with such speed that it’s hard to know where its focus truly lies. And when it’s not just playing clips from the Lifetime documentary itself, the CBS special jam packs every segment with even more interviews that never get enough time to land. (It also uses four separate reporters for interviews and voiceover alike, which only serves to make the special feel even more scattered than its huge range of subject matter already did.) It even devotes its final minutes to a lengthy monologue, which isn’t even delivered by King, about the music industry’s predilection for looking the other way from powerful men behaving badly — a good point that could have been made much quicker, or perhaps at more length in a different hour altogether.

All this adds up to an incredibly frustrating watch, especially given what it could have been without so much interference. King’s interview with Kelly was a gripping, unprecedented dissection of a man who has loomed larger than life for decades. It revealed the depth of Kelly’s desperation, not to mention the scope of King’s talent for interviewing a notoriously difficult subject in a way that is actually revealing. It was electrifying — and this special sucked all the air right out of it.

It’s understandable that CBS might want to provide some more context when presenting it as a primetime special. But it’s downright baffling that they saw the success of the stark interview clips and decided that the best thing to do would be to edit them into disconnected pieces and overwhelm them with speed rounds of history more complex than any single hour has time to explore.

In fact, it says everything that the best and most useful parts of this special are the only real pieces of new footage of King speaking with Kelly. When she asks if he’s a “controlling person,” he counters that he’s just “in control of my household…I’m the king of the castle.” At another point in their 80 minutes together, she even tries to explain that given the prominence of the #MeToo movement, culture has now shifted in a way that has made some women feel far empowered to speak out against abuse than they ever have before, to Kelly’s obvious confusion. If only this special had given it more than thirty seconds before jumping to yet another piece of archival court footage, it could have uncovered a truly fascinating piece of the R. Kelly puzzle.

The fact of the matter is that “Surviving R. Kelly” already exists. There was no need for CBS to try and replicate it in a quarter of the time when even just five minutes of context would have been enough to set up King’s extraordinary interview. It’s a shame and a loss that in trying to explain everything, this special instead revealed next to nothing.

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