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updated 07/03/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/03/1995 01:00AM

THAT SPECIAL EDITION OF PRIMETIME Live (or, as I prefer to call the program, Earth to Michael) certainly broke new ground. It was part interview, part arraignment, part infomercial and part game show. But however you classify it, it's safe to say the participants were pleased. ABC roped in 60 million viewers. And Jackson had a chance to normalize his image by showcasing Lisa Marie. Nothing humanizes a beleaguered man as much as the presence of his concerned wife. In Jackson's case, it was especially important to have Presley by his side because these two have not exactly been a portrait of lovey-dovey togetherness. In fact, if you look at the 52-page booklet that comes with Jackson's just-released HIStory, you'll see pictures of Jackson with everyone from Sophia Loren to George Bush, but curiously, not a single shot of his wife.

The TV event may have been a success for Jackson and ABC, but it was not without its disquieting moments. When Diane Sawyer pressed him to promise there would be no more sleepovers with young boys, his pliant, fey mask slipped. For one chilling moment, he was the imperious superstar unaccustomed to being told what to do. After silently seething, he hissed, "Nobody wonders when kids sleep over at my house." Whoa! Little bit of denial there.

The special was also rich in irony. At one point, Jackson claimed that the tabloids had never made him suicidal because "I have rhinoceros skin." Then he announced that he would have to move to South Africa or the Swiss Alps because he is hypersensitive to smog. Later on, questioned about the imagery in the lavish promo for his album that has been running in movie theaters, Jackson pronounced, "It's about love." So Sawyer rolled tape, and a phalanx of storm troopers goose-stepped onto the screen. Maybe he meant tough love.

You also have to question just how in touch the Jacksons are, given Presley's appeal to Sawyer: "You were in our house. We have a normal house. We have a nanny. We have a maid. He's in the studio. I'm in the kitchen." Honey, have you seen that darn garage-door opener anywhere?

I can't remember watching three such exotic creatures on the same TV screen since the season Sheena Easton joined Crockett and Tubbs on Miami Vice. Sawyer suggests a big jungle cat with her air of attentive languor. As for Jackson, do you think he has a clue just how strange he looks? With his cruelly abridged nose, albescent skin, glassy eyes and startled expression—and an outfit that included those metallic shin guards—he looked like he had stepped out of a Peter Max cartoon. The surprise was Presley, who is far more lovely on camera than in photographs.

Still, I felt sorry for her. The wedding video looked so tacky with the gum-chewing groom. And I was appalled when Jackson held his fingers up behind her head as she answered a question on national television. Very mature, Michael. I came away with the impression that Jackson has a far better and stronger wife than he deserves.

Though Sawyer appeared discomfitted with her role, she did a thorough job of running Jackson through the gauntlet. Near the end of the hour she was really peppering him. Jackson began to take on a glazed look after pointed queries about reputedly anti-Semitic lyrics (which he defended on-air but has subsequently apologized for) and the tint of his skin, and I really thought for a moment he was about to bolt from the stage. The next time Jackson submits to TV scrutiny (which, of course, will be precisely one week before his next album is released), I suspect he will insist on a more compatible setting. Say Unsolved Mysteries.

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