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‘Malfunction’: Janet Jackson documentary exposes very little about halftime scandal

While solidly reported, the FX and Hulu report on the Super Bowl shocker comes across as an uninspiring academic lecture.

Justin Timberlake reaches to tear off part of Janet Jackson’s costume during halftime of Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004.
AP File

Whether by streaming dramatic series or theatrical feature film, one-time documentaries or docu-series, we’re seeing coverage of virtually every major scandal and upheaval and controversy from the 1990s and 2000s, from Diana to Tonya, from the O.J. Simpson trial to the Clinton impeachment hearings, from the accusations against Michael Jackson and Woody Allen, from Britney Spears to Lindsay Lohan to Tiger Woods and we could go on forever.

The newest entry in the burgeoning catalog is “Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson,” the latest chapter in the “New York Times Presents” series, premiering Friday simultaneously on FX and Hulu. This is a solidly researched, journalistically sound look back at the infamous Super Bowl halftime show in which Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson’s breast (for all of 9/16ths of a second) at the end of the performance, thus igniting a controversy with a ripple effect that lasted for years. Unfortunately, it’s also dry and objective to the point of coming across as an uninspiring academic lecture, and adds little to what we already know about the story.

“Malfunction” does a fine job of taking us through the buildup to the controversy, delivering an informative mini-biography of Janet Jackson’s career, from her days as a child actress through her breakthrough albums “Control” and “Rhythm Nation” in the 1980s and Janet owning her sexuality and identity through her music, her videos, her interviews and a very famous Rolling Stone cover. By the 1990s, we were in the midst of a full-fledged Culture War not unlike what we see today, with Vice-President Dan Quayle attacking the fictional Murphy Brown for choosing to become a single mother; conservative politicians and activists voicing shock and horror over Howard Stern’s radio show, nudity on “NYPD Blue” and Bono dropping the f-bomb at the Golden Globes, and groups such as the Parents Television Council pressuring the FCC to “clean up” the airwaves.

Through archival footage and new interviews with journalists, former NFL and network execs and cultural commentators, “Malfunction” sets the stage (so to speak) for the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show on CBS, featuring P. Diddy, Nelly, Kid Rock — and Janet Jackson. Prior to the show, there was more concern about the lyrics of P. Diddy and Nelly, and Kid Rock’s plan to wear an American flag poncho, than anything Janet Jackson or her surprise guest Justin Timberlake would do. There’s a little bit of an investigation into exactly what happened that led to the moment when Timberlake pulled on Jackson’s top and her naked breast (adorned with a silver sunburst decoration) was exposed, but it’s still not entirely clear if both Jackson and Timberlake planned it, if Jackson was supposed to be left wearing a red bra, and if it was indeed a “wardrobe malfunction.”

Whatever the details of the build-up, the actual moment created a media frenzy, with Jackson going into hiding at first while Timberlake reportedly apologized directly to CBS CEO Les Moonves and issued written expressions of remorse. By the time Jackson released her own apology, the media consensus was it was too little, too late. Meanwhile, opportunistic, sanctimonious politicians such as Sam Brownback from Kansas and Heather Wilson of New Mexico pounced on the moment to chastise the liberal media. As “Malfunction” reports, Justin Timberlake pretty much skated away, even appearing on the Super Bowl halftime show in 2018, while Janet Jackson lost record contracts, radio airplay and movie roles. This was terribly unfair, and Timberlake himself has continued to acknowledge that — but there’s very little here in the way of new or surprising information. If you don’t know much about this story, “Malfunction” would be a great place to start. If you DO, there’s no compelling reason to tune in.