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Social Studies

Real Jacksons

By Vincent Williams | Posted 4/7/2010

A&E's The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty Season 1 came out on DVD last week, and I really appreciate the revealing glimpse into the family's life. I know it seems a little bizarre that I'm arguing a reality television show is revealing. Considering the history of the people we're talking about, however, I think a reality television show is the only way fans would ever get a true peek at the Jackson family.

As much as we've all focused on Michael Jackson and, to a lesser extent, Janet over the past 30 years, America's relationship with the entire Jackson family has been a mixture of reality and artifice. From the moment the Jackson 5 achieved their early fame, Motown claimed to offer inside views of the clan. If you look at old issues of magazines such as Ebony and Life, almost as much is written about the Jacksons' familial relationships as the music they made. I remember knowing who La Toya was years before she, well, she did whatever it is she does, and I'm convinced part of the reason Janet Jackson got the role of Penny on Good Times is because she had been showing up on television for years successfully "playing" the role of "the Jackson 5's little sister."

Part of the reason the family projected that blending of the real and artificial also had to do with the times. The Jacksons' fame came in the midst of the entertainment culture of '70s post-Las Vegas lounge act banter. Y'know, you'd watch variety shows like Carol Burnett's or Flip Wilson's, or, appropriately enough, Dean Martin's, and in between the skits and musical numbers the entertainers would stand around joking and trading quips, and just like the Rat Pack, they gave the impression that this is what they always did. Joe Namath and Ruth Buzzi and Brock Peters stood around in evening wear cracking jokes about trying to keep weeds out of their lawn, and I know I thought, Wow, that's probably a cool neighborhood they all live in. . . . And, with their various appearances on television, along with their own variety shows and cartoons, the Jacksons have always given the impression that their media selves are the truth.

So even though The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty is filled with all of the mainstays of fakery we've come to know from reality television--fake conflict, "true" confessions, grating personality traits, etc.--viewed in the context of the family's history, I still found it telling. Like, you could guess that Jermaine was the quintessential middle child, always yearning for attention and ready to throw a temper tantrum at a moment's notice, but who knew that damn Marlon Jackson was friggin' hilarious? Marlon ribbing Jermaine about the aforementioned tantrums and teasing him--in the vaguely bigoted way that only a sibling could get away with--about being a Muslim ("You got a camel parked outside?") was high entertainment. Since he's the oldest, I always pegged Jackie as the de facto leader of the group, so it was startling to see just how sensitive he was during his conversations with his brothers. And considering his name has become the butt of a generation of black comedians' jokes, I was also a little surprised to see that Tito was the taskmaster of the family, driving them to practice perfectionism and causing the others to joke that he "has his father in him."

Speaking of which, I also appreciate the fact that the show humanizes their father. I've always been uncomfortable with the uncritical acceptance of the demonization of Joe Jackson. As Michael Jackson came to the fore in the psychobabble-tinged '80s and his narrative required a tragic element to make him more interesting, Joe Jackson emerged as the villain in the Jackson family mythology. When you really think about it, though, the only people in the Jackson family who really pushed the abusive-Joe meme were Michael and La Toya and, well, let's just say neither one of them is what I would call a reliable narrator. In contrast, when the four brothers bring him up, they paint a picture of a stern and strict man but, ultimately, one who has the family's best interests at heart. Frankly, if I have to pick between believing Michael and La Toya and the rest of the Jacksons, I know where I'm siding.

Overall, I think the series succeeded in showing the brothers as three-dimensional human beings. Right after Michael died, I spent a couple of days watching all of the live performances on YouTube. Again, we all spent so much time focusing on Michael that it was striking just how much staged footage there is of the other brothers joking and playing before and after the music stopped. Compared to that footage, The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty was strikingly revealing and I hope it comes back next season.

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