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Basket Case



Published April 6, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

Click through any random selection of news, talk or entertainment programs these days, and you're guaranteed to be updated on the latest zaniness in the Michael Jackson child-molestation case. There's no escaping it: The King of Pop arriving late and still in his PJs. Delusional videos in which he promises fans he'll be vindicated. On-air phone conversations with Jesse Jackson in which he compares himself to Nelson Mandela. Jesus Juice. The only way this Wild West show could possibly get any wackier is for someone to sneak TV cameras into the courtroom and broadcast the proceedings moment-to-moment.

Well, the judge couldn't get behind that plan, so E! has done the next best thing: The entertainment network built its own courtroom, hired its own cast of look-alikes, and turned the real-life trial transcripts into the script for the kookiest new show on the dial. In my opinion, "The Michael Jackson Trial E! News Presentation" ranks among the major small-screen innovations of our time.

I can't believe nobody has thought of this before. I also can't believe there isn't a bigger buzz about it. It's totally brilliant -- a breath of fresh air in a time when brain-dead reality shows are replicating at a terrifying rate. I mean, is anybody out there in TV land waiting with bated breath for those new shows on the way, with up-close-and-personal looks at the lives of has-beens Farrah Fawcett and Tom Green?

In a cathode world overrun with "Survivor," "Bachelor," "Trading Spaces," "Apprentice" and "Osbournes" clones, E!'s revolutionary new approach stands out as visionary. If you haven't caught it, I recommend you drop what you're doing weeknights at 9 and get with the program. Recaps of the week's action air Saturdays at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Each installment begins with a disclaimer saying what you're about to watch is a reenactment featuring actors, and a warning that you're likely to hear "frank talk of a sexual nature."

That is the understatement of the century, apropos of the trial of the century (so far). Typical of the frank talk: a detailed mid-March account from his young accuser that Jacko masturbated the boy to ejaculation following an evening of drinking. Then there are all those porno mags to be catalogued and characterized. If multiple sources are to be believed, the 47-year-old Michael can be a very naughty boy behind those closed Neverland gates.

In fact, the testimony aired on the show is so graphic and weird, I'm surprised the FCC hasn't started slapping E! with the kinds of fines it likes to heap on Howard Stern. The talk-show host's in-depth interviews with porn stars are PG-rated by comparison. And I would expect the folks at the agency to be watching. After all, E! is the network that airs the televised version of Stern's radio show.

One of the things I relish about this fake-trial broadcast is how hilariously low-rent it is. Given that it chronicles the trial of one of the world's most privileged entertainers, its budget and cast are highly comical. Where production values are concerned, we're talking "Court TV" meets community theater. The courtroom looks like it's made of brown-colored cardboard. The actors don't even pretend not to read off TelePrompTers. And the wigs look like they were bulk bought at a Toys R Us Halloween clearance sale. Few things on television right now compare to watching the guy who plays lead defense counsel Thomas Mesereau unleash a blistering cross-examination with what looks like a floor mop on his head.

The actor who plays Santa Barbara County District Attorney Thomas Sneddon most resembles the real thing. But if the fellow sitting in for Jackson didn't show up in pancake makeup, a crested blazer and an armband every day, he'd bear almost no resemblance to the accused. Where's the dedication to the craft here? The least he could do is get a nose job, or cheek implants. Or have his lips or eyes surgically modified. The guy looks like a linebacker next to the actual Wacko One.

The show's producers are smart enough not to overestimate our attention spans. Even Jackson trial testimony would become tedious if we had to listen to all of it. Instead, they reenact the juicy parts and then cut to an expert panel for commentary and analysis. Host James Curtis heads up a roundtable of legal pundits that includes one-time Jackson representative Howard Weitzman and a couple of female attorneys I've never heard of. Getting Weitzman to take part was a coup; it's fascinating to watch him put the day's developments in the context of his past experiences with Jackson.

Things are only going to get Jesus Juicier. A lot of the testimony so far has centered on the singer's bizarro in-flight drinking rituals, fingerprints on smutty publications and borderline ho-hum accounts of life behind the scenes at Neverland. All man-boy hell is about to break loose, however, now that the judge in the case has decided to admit testimony concerning a virtual Menudo of alleged former victims, including two that received multimillion-dollar settlements from Jackson.

The program's tagline is "Witness the testimony. Decide for yourself." My decision was made the first day I tuned in. You can keep your D-list celebrities, interior designers, bachelorettes and nannies. For my money, the only reality show in town is this three-ring blast of experimental theater about a boy who brought a shocking charge and a superstar who believes he can beat it.