washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Tom Shales

Holding E! In Contempt for Trial Reenactment

By Tom Shales
Wednesday, March 2, 2005; Page C01

It is cheap, creepy, foolish and lurid -- and those are its good points -- but "The Michael Jackson Trial," a bargain-basement reenactment of the day's proceedings on the E! Entertainment Network, does have a sticky irresistibility, like a glazed doughnut that's gone all gooey. You know better, yet you've just got to have a few bites of it, and before you know it you've eaten the whole thing.

And you feel kind of sick.

As Michael Jackson, Edward Moss looks over at the prosecution table in a scene from the reenactment of the day's proceedings at Jackson's trial on E! (Brandon Hickman -- EEL)

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The idea is numbingly simple: Although the latest thing in Michael Jackson trials cannot be televised -- because of a party-pooping judge's order -- the transcript is in the public domain. E!, sometimes known as "Eek!," offers viewers not just a reading of the transcript but also an enactment, with mediocre actors cast as obsessed district attorney Tom Sneddon, white-maned defense attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. and others.

An actor imitating defendant Jackson -- who is charged with sexually molesting an adolescent boy -- sits at the defense table looking pert and pale. The actor may go through the whole series without speaking any lines, since some observers say that Mesereau will not call Jackson to the stand to defend himself. The makeup job on the faux King of Pop is pretty good, but he really suggests the Michael Jackson of two or three noses ago.

Unfortunately for E!, yesterday's session of the Jackson trial was strikingly uneventful, which may be why E! spent so little time promoting its reenactment on shows that preceded it (the reenactment airs nightly at 7:30 and again at 9). At the actual trial, the jury looked at Martin Bashir's notorious and lengthy television interview in which Jackson could be seen holding the hand of the boy whose family is now claiming Jackson molested him. E! is bleeping out the name of the family every time it is mentioned.

Since E! at least had the sense not to try a reenactment of the Bashir documentary, it padded out the half-hour last night with glib, catty commentary from a panel of three legal "experts": Shawn Chapman Holley, Howard L. Weitzman and Rikki Klieman, with James Curtis as the harried and hurrying host. The actors playing Mesereau or Sneddon would be shown making a few remarks and then the panel would appear to analyze the statements word-by-word, commenting on strategies as if this were a football game or pro wrestling match.

The commenting took up much more time than the courtroom action did.

"Some very strong words there," Curtis exclaimed after a segment in which Sneddon alleged that young visitors to Jackson's Neverland ranch surfed the Internet for porno sites showing "naked ladies." Good heavens -- "naked ladies"?!? No wonder the reenactment includes two or three on-screen warnings about possible "frank talk of a sexual nature." Actually, saying Jackson had an interest in naked ladies was doing the defense a favor.

Sneddon did go on, later, to describe Jackson "masturbating himself" while allegedly fondling one of his young male guests. Presumably the descriptions will become more graphic and lurid as witnesses are called and the trial goes on. E! obviously is counting on it.

Curtis and his experts rattled on about how old the jury was, making it sound like a passel of grannies, but a caption during a commercial break revealed one juror is in his seventies, two are in their sixties and the rest are in their fifties or younger. That doesn't sound so terribly old. The jurors are not portrayed by actors; viewers never see them because of the way the courtroom and camera angles are set up. Obvious reason: E! is saving money. That's 12 actors who don't have to be paid.

Since the panel is called upon to make snap judgments, viewers are bound to do the same. Based on the roughly 10 minutes of dramatized court proceedings reenacted on last night's show, it would appear the district attorney has a weak case yet again. Mesereau has an apparently large collection of stories about how the alleged victim's mother tried to hit up such celebrities as Jay Leno for money, and sources quoted in the news media are saying there is no DNA evidence to prove that any molestation by Jackson occurred.

"The Michael Jackson Trial" is consistent with the quality of the other original programming on E!, where the only good shows are reruns imported from other networks. In the annals of TV gimmicks, E! appears to have latched onto a good one, but the sub-minimal production values make the show less enticingly tawdry than laughably tacky.

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