Review: ‘The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty’

Television Critic

Were it not for the unexpected death of Michael Jackson this summer, it would be easy to view A&E’s “The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty” as a strange extension of the “Real Housewives” franchise: “Real Ex-Pop Stars of Los Angeles.”

Certainly, the first two episodes, which air Sunday night, follow a familiar format, in which we meet the principals -- Jackie, Jermaine, Marlon and Tito -- and their big houses and fancy cars, and we watch as they eat in various locales. The brothers quickly assume their roles: Marlon is the funny one; Tito, the peacemaker; Jackie, the father figure; Jermaine, who left the group when the group left Motown, the troublemaker.

“The Jacksons” does have the benefit of bygone celebrity, which the producers milk with many old photos and clips, and an actual narrative: The brothers are coming together not only for this reality show, but also to produce an album that will, they hope, rekindle the Jackson sound.

If Michael were still alive, the show would no doubt be fueled with the tantalizing possibility of an appearance by him, which, of course, would have never happened. But he died shortly after filming began, and “The Jacksons” became something else entirely: another grim example of the siren call of reality television.

For weeks this summer, the four brothers, who many remember only in their youthful versions, became icons of grief, each attending the memorial in sunglasses and a spangly white glove. The first episode of “The Jacksons” ends with the news of Michael’s death. There are news clips and moving interviews with each of the brothers and, inevitably, the new album becomes, at least hypothetically, something of a tribute to Michael.

But “The Jacksons” is very much about Jackie, Jermaine, Marlon and Tito, men who seem unwilling or unable to let the untimely and more than troubling death of their world-famous brother detract, or even delay, their own myopic plans for recovered glory.

A scene in which the family lawyer informs them that they are contractually obligated to perform a show scheduled before Michael’s death is particularly chilling. Jackie briefly argues that they can’t because they are grief-stricken, but he is quickly convinced otherwise, and soon the brothers are scarfing up canapés and congratulating themselves on their grace under pressure.

Yet Michael’s shadow looms behind the action, sometimes poignantly, as when Tito and Marlon visit their old home in Gary, Ind., and reminisce about the early days and the legendary heavy hand of the their father. And sometimes ironically, as when Jermaine kvetches to a reporter about how the media try to tear down his family, never mind that he is starring in a reality show in which his role is clearly to create tension with his brothers.

All the brothers complain about the vulture press, echoing the sentiments expressed at the pop icon’s memorial that a precious few would ever understand Michael’s pain of not being able to walk down the street without being mobbed. Strangely, Marlon, Tito, Jackie and Jermaine are able to walk down many streets, even with the camera crew, and not get mobbed, and it’s difficult not to believe that this is precisely why they are doing a reality show.

If Michael weren’t dead, their antics and self-obsession would be no more or less disturbing than that of other reality show participants. But then, if Michael weren’t dead, it’s hard to imagine the show seeing the light of day.