Mike

2 out of 5

Created by: Steven Rogers

covers season 1

Definitely through some faults of its own, 8-episode biopic Mike – concerning Mike Tyson – is flawed. This is despite a good way of “breaking” the structure, using 4th-wall aware dynamics to step through the timeline and lampshade some aspects, and cast something of a safety net over events it can depict as being told through Mike’s point of view; and also despite some solid – verging on great – performances.

But then there’s the fault of the material: any document of a large chunk of a real person’s life is going to have to gloss and summarize, unless there’s really time to dive into all the corners and alleyways. And especially when the coverage isn’t to build up to some clear event – i.e. and this is what led to the invention of X; and this is how so-and-so became a star – that gloss becomes rather more clear; the telling must necessarily wander, and the inevitable bias is harder to ignore. And especially in this case, with a polarizing figure – a man with violence and rape in his background, who never especially rehabilitated his public presence so much as just kept moving on with force – there is a giant, inherent flaw: that you’re either choosing a side, or you aren’t. In the former case, the narrative slants a certain direction, though perhaps this does allow for the over-arching narrative to focus; in the latter case, it’s good to leave the decision up to the audience, but now impartiality becomes even more important, and already you’ve doubled down on the gloss just by dint of the limited-length undertaking…

Using a fictionalized version of (presumably) his 2010s one-man Broadway show, ex-boxer Mike Tyson (Trevante Rhodes) tells the audience – the ones at the show, and the television-watching audience – about his life. Starting from the hard-knocks streets – an emotionally abusive home; multiple arrests as a juvenile – on through discovering boxing in jail, and eventually being taken under the wing by coach Cus D’Amato (Harvey Keitel), who tells Mike, at age 14, to “be a monster” in the ring. His rep – and as the series would have it, his growth as a person – thrives under Cus, but his passing leaves Mike afloat to be picked up by those ready to abuse his prowess for profit (which Tyson also enjoys), eventually winding up in the hands of notorious promoter Don King (Russell Hornsby).

Up to this point, director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Roberts (also the creator, and along with Gillespie, responsible for I, Tanya) have been following biopic rules of linearity and mixing perceived sincerity with bids for our sympathy; mixed with the afore-mentioned 4th-wall bits, which allows Tyson of the past (B.J. Minor) and present to give cheeky looks to the camera, we’re not quite mining new or surprising territory in terms of storytelling or subject matter, but it’s engrossing – all of the actors do a good job of representing their real life counterparts with a kind of overt playacting – mannerisms, makeup, vocal affectations – that comes across as organic within the context of the show’s tone, Rhodes especially having absorbed so much of Tyson that you can imagine him slipping into the role accidentally; and the storytelling feels balanced, despite those sympathy bids.

However, once we’re in King territory, and Rhodes take over the role, Tyson’s story becomes more contentious. And the show starts having to play tricks. While there’s a respectful pause to give a whole episode over to the victim of his sexual assault, Desiree (Li Eubanks), the narrative doubles back to kinda shrug and remind us – that’s just her point of view. While I don’t think the creators intend this as an actual exception (I do believe they side with her), and are moreso including it to maintain tonal consistency with Mike’s one-man show frame, it’s nonetheless a bit cringey, and this tendency – while maybe not covering for such flagrant actions – gets worse and worse, and there’s simply not enough runtime to effect this in a way that feels clever; it just feels cheap.

This covers a period of Tyson’s life which was filled with violence, and drugs, and sex, and we talk about it in a rather PG way, still staying on the boxer’s side. Yes, the show is filtered through his “voice,” but again, the presentation makes the gaps in storytelling feel more obvious, and more grating when they try to double-back and justify – or worse, shrug at – the inconsistencies.

It’s never, by any means, unwatchable, and at a high level, it’s pieced together very proficiently. But given all of those caveats about biopics with which I started, the show was already climbing uphill, and trying to play the opinion somewhat down the middle – maybe he’s good? maybe he’s bad? maybe he’s both? – becomes a cop out, thanks to the same self-aware energy that initially gives the series an edge.