‘The Michael Vick Project’

Television Critic

Michael Vick, the ex-Atlanta Falcon, convicted felon, formerly dog-abusing Humane Society volunteer spokesman and current Philadelphia Eagle, is the subject of a 10-part series that begins Tuesday night on BET, “The Michael Vick Project.”

The word “project” in the title indicates that we are meant to take this seriously (its meaningless use in “The Rachel Zoe Project” notwithstanding). It suggests hard work and the possibility of transformation. That the subject of the series is also one of its producers is worth noting but also par for the course in the new reality we call “reality.”

The game plan is laid out clearly in the opening narration: “Against all odds, one man escaped and uplifted a family. But his humble beginnings led to a very tragic ending. But from darkness he saw the light. Blessed with a second chance, he must once again rise above to heal his family, his community, his legacy.” (Heal his legacy?) It is a redemption story, couched in religious terms: “I’m Michael Vick,” Vick says over the opening credits. “My fall from grace was tragic, but it was all my fault, and I’m on a mission to get everything back. Not the money and the fame, but to restore my family’s good name.”

You can decide for yourself whether this process is already, for all intents and purposes, complete. That Vick’s Philadelphia teammates recently voted him the Ed Block Courage Award, for players who “exemplify commitment to the principles of sportsmanship and courage,” seems to indicate that it is, as does a BET online poll in which 85% of those responding agreed that the quarterback had already done enough to “repair his image.” It also indicates that the likely audience for this show is already on the star’s side.

Indeed, there are plenty of people in this world who would not regard Vick’s adventures in dog fighting as anything to apologize for in the first place -- nothing to go to prison for, anyway, as he did. Many humans are insensitive to the sensitivity of other species. (For that matter, many humans are unconscious of the humanity of whole classes of other humans.) And though Vick admits here that his treatment of his dogs was “inhumane and barbaric,” the bloody specifics of his operation are avoided, including the fact that his partners -- and Vick himself at times -- would kill dogs that did not perform well, shooting them, hanging them, drowning them.

I am with the dogs in this but admit that wealthy, feckless, gifted athletes are people too; I wouldn’t deny Vick his second chance or question the sincerity of his remorse. We see a few photos of him as a child, to remind us that he was born innocent, and are shown that he came from a hard place that left its mark on him, so that even as he was signing the biggest deal in NFL history, he was still operating under the influence of old bad companions, or at least old bad ideas. And yet, walking around the now-empty house on the property where he kept his kennel and lodged his friends, he sometimes seems more nostalgic than contrite.

We get a brief glimpse of a pre-lapsarian Vick deformed by money and fame, but the man we see interviewed here is pleasant, neutrally dressed and well-spoken -- straightforward if not yet shown as remarkably curious as to the deeper meanings of his story or the darker crannies of his psyche. And because -- apart from a couple of worked-up animal-rights activists, shown in sound-bite clips at demonstrations and easy to dismiss -- there is no one on-screen who is not supportive of him, the show becomes more about what Vick has suffered himself, or at any rate the pain they all shared, than it is about the pain he has caused

Even in bankruptcy, the quarterback remains a valuable commodity; for many, his redemption will be strictly a matter of his playing football well. And if he doesn’t, well, at least he won’t be shot, drowned or hanged for it.