The title Taking on Tyson is as much an enigma as the titular figure himself. On one level, it refers to the way in which Mike Tyson is at war with himself, fighting to reconcile his inner nature with the one placed upon him by societal pressures before and after he got famous. On another level, it refers to audience expectations going into a show about the former heavyweight champion trying to enter the largely unknown world of pigeon racing. And on a third level, it refers to the long-standing, surprisingly large world of pigeon racing itself, full of long-time practitioners anxious to take down Tyson in a way they could never do in the squared circle.
Unfortunately, the title is the most interesting thing about this initial hour, although it’s not for lack of interesting subject matter. All shows, whether scripted or reality, need a compelling figure at their center. And it’s hard to get more compelling than Mike Tyson. For those, like myself, that only knew the cursory aspects of his career (youngest champion ever, hardest final boss in Nintendo history, sometimes object of The Fresh Prince’s lyrical assaults), the initial hour served as a perfectly fine way to not only learn the basics of Tyson’s history but also the throughline that led to him considering pigeons to be the ultimate sanctuary from the insanity of his life.
At its heart, the relationship between Tyson and the pigeons he raised from age 10 onward reflects the need for love, attention, and control that was absent in every other aspect of his life. The lack of strong parental figures early in Tyson’s childhood home of Brownsville, coupled with constant bullying at school(!), led Tyson to seek refuge in the pigeons that were already being raised in his section of Brooklyn by elder generations. By the time he came out of Spofford Juvenile Center, having served time for crimes committed in service of purchasing an ever-increasing number of birds, he received his first real father figure in the form of boxing trainer Cus D'Amato.
D'Amato helped Tyson on the path to championships, but to hear Tyson tell it, D'Amato also helped foment the mental schism that led to Tyson’s later instabilities. D'Amato preached superiority in his gym, in addition to a cold-hearted seriousness that belied Tyson’s intrinsically gentle, humorous nature. That’s Tyson’s own take, of course, and potentially flawed and possibly unreliable. However, it’s also the clearest instance of Tyson’s own personal perspective that we get throughout the hour. And that’s the show’s biggest flaw at this point: While having as interesting a subject as possible, Taking on Tyson seems singularly unwilling to let the man tell his own story.
So who does? None other than Omar Little himself, Michael K. Williams. Williams narrates this documentary, or, rather, over-narrates to the point of nearly choking the proceedings to death. Now, that’s an editorial decision more than anything Williams himself brings to the table. But the narration in this documentary makes the proceedings sound like a one-hour promotion for a series that will start a later date, as opposed to an actual episode happening in the moment. Rather than simply introducing certain aspects of the world and then stepping out of the way or using the figures in the show as talking heads in order to give perspective and flavor to Tyson’s healing through pigeon racing, the show leans on Williams multiple times per minute. The result is a hand-holding hour that almost never lets the audience into the world at hand.
That’s too bad, because the world itself is fairly interesting. What I personally want out of a documentary series is to be introduced to a topic 1.) that I either know nothing about, or 2.) that explores something familiar in a unique way. Well, I didn’t know a damn thing about pigeon racing, nor the extent of its reach in the New York area. It’s not necessarily something I needed to know about in order to feel as if I’d lived a fulfilling existance, but to see how the sport spans generations of people across multiple ethnic backgrounds high atop the rooftops of New York and New Jersey felt more documentary-worthy than many shows on Animal Planet. I’d certainly rather watch this than a show about morons that keep alligators as pets and wonder why they keep waking up each morning with one less limb on their bodies.
It’s a subculture that seems rife with colorful characters, and perhaps later episodes get into the culture of the sport more than this initial hour had time to explore. But even the other members of Tyson’s racing team barely registered as anything approximating three dimensions in this outing. Had we gotten more actual interaction, instead of incessant Williams overdubbing, perhaps we’d be ready to go into pigeon racing battle with them. As such, the only current drama now lies in whether or not Tyson will throw one of them off of the roof of the pigeon coop.
The sole exception? When Tyson compares newly acquired coach Vinnie Torre to D’Amato, there’s a slight hint that Tyson’s competitive demons could undo all the work that years of therapy sought to undo (or, in Tyson’s words, “out-program,” perhaps because deprogramming is for inferior humans). At another point in the episode, Torre compares Tyson to the homing pigeons themselves thusly: “It’s just like you. You wanna get home, right?” Sounds about right, especially considering that he flew directly from his 2002 loss to Lennox Lewis to his pigeon coop. THAT should be the throughline for the series, and maybe it will be at some point, but it certainly wasn’t there tonight.
Tyson’s demons came to the forefront through sports, and his calm came through pigeons. He’s combining both in this series, which could either fuse both sides of his warring personality or forever split them apart. Hopefully, as that struggle continues, we’ll hear him talk about that struggle and not Michael K. Williams.
- Between Williams’ narration and the fact that Marlo Stanfield used to care for pigeons in a Tyson-like manner, it was hard not to make The Wire references throughout the hour. One wonders if a Hoboken-centric version of the show would have featured Frank Sobotka as the secretary of an ailing Lyndhurst Pigeon Club. Or maybe Tyson can name one of his pigeons Omar just so someone can yell, “Omar comin’!” when the birds return to the coop.
- Did you know that show pigeons existed, and that they are called “fancies”? Well, now you do.
- “Lessons from The Loft” is not only the show’s quiz portion but also a planned companion piece for Zach Galifianakis’ faux interview series Between Two Ferns.
- Part of me really wants an eventual training montage that features Tyson competing against other teams, all scored to “Hearts on Fire” from Rocky IV.
- “With a lot of tender love and care and practice and consistency, I can make a homer a better homer.” –Mike Tyson, channeling Marge Simpson
- Mike Tyson on how people viewed his erratic behavior in his heyday: “This guy is a dreadful, offensive cad!” Honestly, why does this show need narration at all? JUST LET TYSON TALK.