When I first heard the synopsis of Mike Tyson’s new TV show Taking On Tyson, I had to laugh. Mike Tyson, the old heavyweight champion of the world, having a show on Animal Planet about his love for pigeons? That couldn’t possibly be serious. But after the first five minutes of the pilot episode, I knew I was in love.
Throughout his career, Mike has had issues with anger, drugs, alcohol and domestic violence, yet he has always sought refuge from his problems by taking care of pigeons in his native New York. After retiring from the ring, Tyson decided to train and raise homing pigeons, and he is now going up against some of the seasoned vets in a competition to see who can raise the fastest birds.
A keen focus on sentimentality helps viewers enjoy Tyson’s show. In the show, we see pigeons flying in incredibly detailed slow motion and silhouettes of Tyson while the sun is going down. We get an even more tenderhearted picture of Tyson as he recalls his childhood and how he skipped school to avoid bullying and be with his pigeons. They provided comfort to him after his father left him. One day a sadistic gang member from his town killed one of his pigeons — provoking Tyson, at age 11, to become a fighter.
Coincidentally, I am now also obsessed with another troubled celebrity for entirely different reasons. Former Two and a Half Men star Charlie Sheen has been all over the news since he landed in the hospital earlier this year after throwing a party involving porn stars, vodka and tons of cocaine. Now his star quotient has gone up exponentially after an ill-advised interview on ABC’s 20/20, where he talked about his drug use, personal life and career using cocky and witty dialog.
Even before his 20/20 interview, Sheen generally partied like it was 1986 — he’s been in rehab multiple times, and was arrested in December 2009 on domestic violence charges. This time, however, it seems like he’s hit rock bottom, the point in most celebrities’ careers at which they try to reclaim their images and statuses by checking into rehab. Sheen, on the other hand, apparently has no regard for his image or status, or even his job — he was axed from Two and a Half Men after badmouthing show creator Chuck Lorre during a series of radio interviews, and he is now currently unemployed.
Sheen’s trajectory toward infamy is somewhat inexplicable. True, he’s indisputably quotable and hilarious, but is that enough reason to gain over two million Twitter followers in 24 hours? Sheen believes that his popularity is due to his “honesty,” but he also seems convinced that he is some sort of sexy hardcore superstar, and there’s nothing funnier than watching his self-delusions unfold. Yet, perhaps we like Sheen for the same reason that we like Mike Tyson: Americans love watching fallen celebrities struggle to get back on their feet.
Both Sheen’s interviews and Tyson’s new series showcase a side of these stars that we didn’t know existed. In the first episode, for instance, Tyson talks of a superiority complex that he picked up while training in his late teens, explaining that these inflated feelings of self-worth got him in trouble with drugs and the law. Judging by his recent interviews, Sheen has similar feelings, but he has yet to realize that they are hurting him.
It has now been five years since Tyson retired from the boxing world and he, like many celebrities, is now trying to put his troubled past behind him. So far, it seems like his image makeover has been largely successful — getting a show on a popular channel and a free pilot on iTunes is not easy, and the Tyson in Taking on Tyson looks altogether wholesome next to trainwreck Charlie Sheen.
Is it possible that Sheen could have his own comeback show? If so, it would no doubt be very different from Tyson’s. While Taking on Tyson tracks Tyson’s journey toward humility and self-realization, Sheen hasn’t expressed regret, let alone humility; he claims to have only stopped taking drugs because they bore him, and he has been tweeting news of his “comeback” for weeks, to the amusement of skeptics around the blogosphere. What attracts us to Mike Tyson — and what allows us to be invested in his own comeback — makes it difficult for us to find the same sympathy for Charlie Sheen.