Earlier this year, The New York Times’ documentary unit had its greatest achievement yet in clarity and impact. “Framing Britney Spears,” the Times’ doc on the pop singer’s figurative captivity within her image and her literal one within her family and legal conservatorship, brought a complex and granular awareness of the issues at play in the story to a mass audience. They also brought mass attention to a case that had been playing out in the background of popular culture for more than a decade.
Now the Times sets out to do a similar thing for Janet Jackson, whose career suffered a painful blow after her breast was exposed on-camera at the Super Bowl in 2004. The unfortunately punningly titled “Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson,” directed by Jodi Gomes, has a more abstract goal than did “Framing Britney Spears”: What’s meant to be reclaimed here is not something as tangible as freedom, but Jackson’s reputation.
This documentary, living as it does in the moments after a great humiliation, makes that reclamation seem near-impossible. We begin with a walk through the milestones of Jackson’s career that made her, we’re told, a lightning rod for controversy (including a gingerly done and quite terse gloss on the Jackson family). But the meat of this story lies in the big game, and its aftermath: A promotional circuit for Jackson’s latest album ruined and a period of cultural exile, all while Timberlake, Jackson’s stage partner, rises to superstardom. Timberlake, interestingly, is less the story’s villain than simply a sad example of someone with greater cultural capital and, perhaps, a greater willingness to work the levers of power; it’s then-CBS chief Les Moonves, incensed over what happened on his air, that appears as Jackson’s greatest tormentor. That he has since lost his place in the industry after allegations of sexual misconduct gives a feeling of painful poetic justice in this context.
It also gives an idea of what makes “Malfunction” feel less than urgent. The sea change it’s encouraging has already happened. After a years-long process of reckoning with and re-evaluating incidents from the recent history of popular culture, Jackson is generally regarded as a recording-industry legend, her shaming a piquant but half-forgotten incident that pales in comparison to her musical legacy. This is not meant to minimize what she went through in the moment but to suggest that the moment does not and should not define the way we see her today: Indeed, the film itself concludes with Jackson’s 2019 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Jackson’s honor came a year after the NFL was widely criticized for inviting Timberlake back to perform at the Super Bowl in 2018. (Earlier this year, Timberlake apologized publicly to both Jackson and Spears, a sign of how far the public mood had shifted on both figures.)
That’s not to say that there aren’t intriguing questions to be explored in Jackson’s particular star persona, or that there isn’t inherent interest in what literally happened onstage at the Super Bowl. To the latter question, “Malfunction” suggests that some things are meant to remain mysteries: Despite access to various parties involved behind the scenes and to the NFL commissioner at the time, the documentary ultimately arrives in a place of uncertainty as to what was really meant to happen at the end of Jackson and Timberlake’s duet. Indeed, this strikes the viewer as a place where greater context earlier on might have helped: Among Jackson’s deficits in facing a public storm was her desire for privacy and refusal to back down, both traits that seem inherent in the Jackson musical dynasty. As such, her silence on the incident now seems unbreakable.
But perhaps that doesn’t matter as much as the end result: We see the hue and cry that resulted, including Congressional hearings over the less-than-a-second-long broadcast of Jackson’s bare breast. These are fascinating in part for their remoteness — the conservative side’s victory on that battlefront presaged their seeming to lose the ongoing culture war. But attempts to draw out ways in which Jackson’s personal qualities may have contributed to the furor seem at times forced. Was Jackson a target because of particular aspects of her fame — the sexual assertiveness of her music, her history of independent-mindedness — that made her uniquely likely to be a scapegoat, or simply because she had the unfortunate luck to be a Black woman who stumbled into the crosshairs of an empowered religious right?
Throughout, “Malfunction” is absorbing. But it can’t crack that question. As such, it often lends the sense that there’s surprisingly little to be learned from Jackson’s story — that it’s such a one-of-a-kind confluence of forces as to be incomparable to anything else from recent pop history, and that its net effects on Jackson’s career have happily come to seem a footnote on a long and remarkable career. By story’s end, when Jackson is triumphantly thanking her fans for sticking by her until her latest triumph, viewers could be forgiven for wondering the point of relitigating her lowest moment.
“The New York Times Presents: Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson” will air Friday, Nov. 19, at 10 p.m. ET on FX and stream simultaneously on Hulu.