Prior to last weekend's premiere of A&E's "The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty," both keen interest and skepticism were brewing as to the reality show airing not long after Michael Jackson unexpectedly passed away this summer. Manipulative ploy to earn high ratings or a sincere look inside a family wanting to set the record straight after decades of tabloid drama and rumors? Regardless of the divided camps of supporters and critics, Nielsen reported 3.2 million people tuned in to the premiere last Sunday with an additional 1.8 million for the encore presentation immediately following. To get the scoop on the origins of the series featuring Jermaine, Tito, Marlon and Jackie, the role that Michael was going to play in the show and how the Jacksons are one family that cannot be broken, our Jim Halterman talked with "Jacksons" Executive Producer Jodi Gomes.
Jim Halterman: When did planning for the Jacksons reality show begin?
Jodi Gomes: Every network has always wanted the Jacksons to come to television. About a year and a half ago, Jermaine and I sat down and we knew the 40th anniversary for the Jackson 5 was upcoming and we wanted to do something to dedicate back to the fans and find a close connection to the fans. He got together with his brothers and there was a lot of decision-making and they felt that it was time to tell their story in their own words. We started developing in 2008 in prepping for the 40th anniversary but the show started recording in January 2009.
JH: A lot of these reality shows have a specific tone such as the Kardashians being pretty humorous, for example. How did you and the brothers decide on the tone of the show?
JG: People have never heard or seen their personalities except on stage or in group settings so we wanted to show that these guys have four different personalities. Marlon has a comedic sense of humor, Tito is a bit more on the serious side...I think our show just inevitably, in capturing their personalities, is going to have a bit of drama, it's going to have a bit of comedy. I think that's what's going to set us apart from the other shows.
JH: In the show you get to see these famous brothers bicker and essentially behave like brothers. Did you know that was what you were going to get before you started filming?
JG: I think every producer hopes to get honesty on camera and I've done a lot of reality show pilots that didn't get to air because, especially celebrity shows, [the subjects] tend to be very guarded or only want to market and promote certain aspects of their lives. With the Jacksons, anytime they make a decision to come to television or to set a new record or do a live show they go for it 110%. I was blessed and fortunate enough that they came at this with open minds and unfiltered worlds. It was just amazing and our entire crew and camera staff were amazed at the camera access with these guys.
JH: What were the expectations for the show before it even aired?
JG: Here's the bottom line and I've never seen this before. We have hundreds of thousands of hits on a daily basis on our website and on our Facebook pages from fans all over the world. I have never seen this before. I'd say 90% of it is with extreme support for the family. People are anxious to see the show and I've seen on Facebook where for every 30 comments of people sharing their excitement you will see the one or two people saying 'They're capitalizing on Michael's death' or 'It's bad timing' and I don't have to respond to it because the fans go full-throttle and say 'This is who they are. They're entitled to make a show about their lives. It started long before Michael passed away and their name is Jackson, too, so how do you exploit something you're a part of?' In fact, Michael was very supportive of the show.
JH: How did Michael's death affect the production of the show?
JG: I've been with this family almost every moment of the journey. I live close by to the family and when I heard about Michael's death I was with one of the brothers and I was on the phone with another. As a production team, we literally had lived moment to moment with this family. We are family with these guys and so we went out of our way to make sure...people will never understand what they went through at that moment of publicly finding out that the most famous man in the world passed away and it's their brother. Little things like they weren't even able to go out and get food for 3-4 days because they couldn't step out of their homes. I found myself bringing them food to their homes and making sure they had water to stay hydrated. It was a very intense situation. The last thing on my mind as a professional was the TV show. We basically sat back and said when they're ready they'll either go forward or they won't and I had no opinion on it one way or another. I just wanted to make sure that mentally I was there for them. What I want people to understand is it still is a very heavy time for them. It hasn't been any less raw for them. It's just something they're learning to live with but what happened was they came to a certain point a couple of months after Michael had passed and they finally put him in the ground and they said 'We have to carry on with our lives and move on with business.' The TV show actually became therapeutic for them because it was the one thing that forced them to be together everyday. With that they get a chance to share their mourning with each other. I tell people that are naysayers, look at the flipside of this, these guys get to stay together every day at a moment of time that was a most crucial moment of time in their lives.
JH: If Michael hadn't passed away, were there plans for him to be a big part of the show?
JG: Absolutely Michael was a future plan of the show. We had plans locked in to go to the O2 arena to visit Michael and support Michael. Michael, in fact, was very close to our project and I had numbers of conversations with him in regards to the music choice selections to accompany the show. He was going out of his way to make sure the brothers had clearance on his music, which is the hardest music in the world to clear for television. He went out of his way to make sure that the brothers were taken care of and he was so thrilled and they were thrilled.
JH: Ever since they became famous, controversy has often swirled around the Jacksons. How much of that is dealt with on the show?
JG: The guys live moment to moment literally. We shadowed them so whatever happened on a particular day we captured it from their perspective. I would say you have to tune in to see how they deal with things that are thrown at them whether it's negative or positive. Everything gets thrown at these guys. The one comment I will make is that no matter how much people try to shake the family or twist what they're doing or twist what's going on they will always find their way back to center with family. At the end of the day people don't understand the bond that this family has had from their youth they haven't been able to trust or lean on anyone but themselves and nothing and nobody will ever penetrate that bond. They lean on each other and support each other through the thick and the thicker and the rest of it is all myth.
JH: You also get to see a lot of the kids and grandkids that these guys have. Is that next-generation group going to also be a part of the show?
JG: With the Jacksons it's kind of one for all, all for one. It's impossible to do a show about these guys who are icons and not touch upon their close relationships with their children. We have a cast of 23 Jackson members in the television series. We do officially have the largest cast ever in television.
JH: Of course, there are some somber moments in the show because of Michael's death but are there lighter moments to come, as well?
JG: Absolutely. What you're going to see is genuine Jacksons. These guys are performers and no matter what is thrown at them they still know how to have a good time. They grew up on the road on small busses together so they've learned how to entertain each other really well and I think that comes across in the episodes. They're human so they have every complexion of emotions that we all have. They're happy, they're sad, they're angry, they're athletic. They play basketball, they breathe, they brush their teeth. Just the normal everyday things and they wanted to communicate to the world. 'We've ascended to heights that nobody can understand and we're still human.'
"The Jacksons; A Family Dynasty" airs Sundays on A&E at 10:00/9:00c.