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 V.20 No.10 | March 10 - 16, 2011 
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Idiot Box

Featherweight Champion

“Taking on Tyson” on Animal Planet

We all knew fallen boxing idol Mike Tyson would end up on a reality show. It was inevitable. The only question was: Which one? An embarrassing turn on “Dancing With the Stars”? A rage-fueled meltdown on “Celebrity Apprentice”? Turns out we were all wrong. Who could have imagined Mike Tyson’s comeback would materialize in the form of a reality show on Animal Planet?

Mike Tyson, in case you didn’t know, has raised pigeons since he was a teen. Growing up in New York’s Brownsville neighborhood, the troubled young Tyson took refuge on the rooftops caring for generations of show pigeons. Now, in his mid-40s and five years retired from boxing, Tyson is making a return to his hometown and taking on the challenge of training homing pigeons in the hopes of entering them in New York’s competitive six-month pigeon racing season.

Mike Tyson and pigeons? You’re not wrong in thinking this sounds ridiculous. But “Taking on Tyson” is shockingly fascinating. For starters, there’s the subject himself. Tyson has had major highs and lows in his meteoric career. But he’s never been less than interesting. Now, well past the only career he’s ever had, he’s quieter, humbler and sincerely looking for direction in life. Turning to the animals he’s known since childhood seems like a perfectly wise decision. And seeing Tyson with his birds, he comes across as a very different man than the one we know from the tabloids: gentle, caring, loyal.

On screen, Tyson is disarmingly honest. The show doesn’t sugarcoat his troubled past. There’s as much examination of Tyson’s flaws as there are pretty shots of birds. Visiting the apartment he grew up in, Tyson shares emotional stories of poverty, deprivation and bullying. “Taking on Tyson” features the first negative words I’ve ever heard Tyson speak about Cus D’Amato, the legendary boxing trainer who adopted him. Tyson admits D’Amato’s lessons of total superiority served him well in the ring, but made it difficult for him to interact with other people. Which may account for his passion for birding.

Racing homing pigeons isn’t a subject most people (certainly not most people outside of NYC) know much about. But “Taking on Tyson” gives a solid crash course in the sport. And damned if it doesn’t seem like a noble pursuit. It’s not extreme cage fighting or anything. Mostly, it’s old guys sitting around on rooftops waiting for their birds to come home. But it takes patience and skill. A little bit of the former may be helpful in appreciating this show’s easy pace.

“Taking on Tyson” is shot magnificently. This isn’t your typical, lensed-on-digital, slapped-together documentary series. The camera work is beautiful, with long, slow helicopter shots of New York / New Jersey neighborhoods, incredible sunsets over dense urban landscapes and slo-mo tours through real, graffiti-strewn streets. Tyson’s friends/co-stars—including a cigar-chomping Portuguese businessman, a couple of young Mexican brothers and an old Italian pigeon breeder—add immeasurable flavor to the show. Honestly, you’d have to go to “The Sopranos” or “The Wire” to find East Coast color this vivid. Thanks, Animal Planet, for defying our expectations of “reality.”

“Taking on Tyson” airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on Animal Planet.
 

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