Animal Planet Debuts Mike Tyson In Reality Show

Marjorie Kaplan had to be incredulous as she touted Animal Planet's coming attractions during last year's upfront event. The chief of the network proudly introduced Mike Tyson as the star of a bizarre show and then deferred to him to promote it.

Tyson began exuberantly detailing how he developed his passion for pigeons -- the genesis for the "Taking on Tyson" series, set to launch March 6. Excitement rising, Tyson recounted how he would skip school to chase and collect the birds growing up.

Kaplan didn't interrupt him. But when the ex-world champ finished, she noted drolly: "We don't support truancy."

Attendees were intrigued. Mike Tyson loving pigeons? It did not compute. Animal Planet had ginned up interest in the series, and used Tyson wisely that day.

For a bunch of jaded advertisers, there are few draws that can send a buzz through an upfront hall. "Sully," the pilot who landed in the Hudson, had hearts pounding at the Discovery event in 2009. Eminem would do it. Ali too. Tyson is right there.

Despite the boxer's criminal record, Animal Planet realized some people overlooked his past -- and decided his magnetism typecasts him for reality TV. His cameo in the 2009 comedy "The Hangover" only amped up his appeal.

Of course, in pure Tyson fashion, he later admitted to taking the role to fuel a drug habit. He is a cauldron of contradictions. There's kindness and violence. Chaos and calm. Humility and hubris. Pugilism and -- now we learn -- pigeons.

His life arc is remarkable, rising from Brooklyn poverty to an unforgettable world champion at 20, followed by a rape conviction. In his heyday in the ring, he was "exceedingly brutal, terrifying, and evinced in his savagery a pure killer instinct nobody else has had since Sonny Liston," according to MediaPost reporter and boxing fan Karl Greenberg.

Tyson's love of pigeons actually led to his first fight, chronicled in the first episode of the Animal Planet series. Staying away from school because he was constantly bullied, pigeons provided some peace. He would capture them and carry 80 to 100 in bags at a time. He says in "Taking on Tyson," that he never had any physical altercations until a neighborhood tough stole one his birds. The man grabbed it, ripped it in half and splattered the blood on Tyson. He fought back. "I had some pride that day," he says in the show.

"Taking on Tyson" dovetails with Animal Planet's push to offer programming that melds compelling personalities with animals. The six-part series has two threads. There are vignettes about Tyson. And the drama created as Tyson joins a team participating in competitive pigeon racing.

From the start, two things jump out: After appearing overweight and aged in "The Hangover," Tyson looks great at 44. His body is sculpted and there is a brightness in his face, suggesting sobriety.

Second, the show's photography is outstanding with sweeping aerial views of the Manhattan skyline -- Tyson's pigeons are on Jersey rooftops -- along with birds taking off and flying.

With Tyson, there are revealing moments. At times, his inner child shines through, while he there is a certain ingenuousness, even with cameras surrounding him. At one point, he offers how after all the boxing machismo, he's working to gain humility. Separately, he also flashes some avian knowledge.

But the Tyson personal string is somewhat roughly intermingled with Tyson as the budding bird racer. At least after the first episode, doing both leaves the viewer wanting more. And it's not more Tyson.

It becomes clear there could be a riveting series just about the obscure competitive bird-racing world. "Taking on Tyson" mentions a slew of club races in the New York area alone. What drives the participants? Is gambling involved? Are fleet birds bought and sold like European soccer stars? Is there any animal abuse?

Maybe the series headlined by the once-fearless Tyson will take the questions on later.

Tags: television, tv
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