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Is Channel 5's Autopsy: Last Hours justified?

21st January 2014
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Many regard Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston to be two of the greatest musical entertainers of the twentieth century and arguably of all time. With a wealth of talent and inimitable style, they each brought something new to the world whether it was a flawless falsetto, cinematic music videos or high-energy performances accompanied by unscathed vocals.

Sadly, their names have been eternalised under one common factor: their shocking, tragic and untimely deaths.

On the 25th June 2009, we were all stunned to hear of Michael Jackson’s sudden death, which came as a huge blow to many of his fans and more so those who were expecting to see him in the 50-date showdown This Is It. It is coming up to five years now – it’s been a while, hence many were shocked to find that Channel 5 would be airing a documentary purely based around the findings from the autopsy report of the deceased celebrity.

It’s old news, many exclaim! We know he died from some kind of drug overdose and for a celeb this is no odd occurrence. The ‘immediate cause of death’ as stated in the coroner’s report was "acute propofol intoxication" (a powerful anesthetic typically administered to patients during medical operation).

What, then is the point?

From the perspective of a documentary-fan, perhaps we could see the Autopsy series as being an interesting watch, factual, educational and an insight into the human anatomy.

Then again, it’s common knowledge that Michael Jackson (often referred to as The King of Pop) was not just a body but a cultural icon who many held and still hold with the deepest affection.

Autopsy: Michael Jackson’s Last Hours sent Twitter ablaze with everything from rage to nostalgia. Ofcom received an ample number of complaints in response to the show’s bare-all nature.  It appeared that Channel 5 left no stone unturned, featuring photos of Jackson’s corpse and LAPD photos of the star’s bedroom, without sparring details of an enlarged prostate.

Esteemed pathologist Dr Richard Shepherd, who famously conducted the inquest into the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and Mr Dodi Al Fayed, hosts the documentary. He knows his stuff and it’s all really tense as he sits in a static position in an extreme close up, often narrating the most horrific health conditions so matter-of-factly. With the help of illustrative diagrams, real-life photos and easy-to-follow explanations of conditions including lupus and osteoarthritis, several viewers took to social networking hailing the show as a fascinating watch.

However, many took the issue with what they felt was an insensitive and ‘over-clinical’ treatment of death.

It’s widely known that Jackson did not share the best relationship with the media, who commonly referred to the singer as ‘Wacko Jacko’. Some suggested that this was yet another attempt by the media to air Jackson’s ‘dirty laundry’, the skeletons in his closet as it were and disrespect the family and friends that he left behind.

However this did not deter several thousands of us from tuning in, with ‘Michael Jackson’ trending heavily during the day of broadcasting and the following day with several admitting to ‘catching-up’ with the episode the following day.

This was pretty much our exact reaction after the broadcast of the second episode of the Autopsy series, which detailed the last hours of ‘I Will Always Love You’ singer Whitney Houston who passed away in February 2012 aged just 48.

There were rumours that Houston struggled with drug and alcohol and even suffered from domestic abuse. Similarly in Jackson’s case, there were whisperings pertaining to his skin colour and suggestions that he deliberately bleached his skin out of preference for a white appearance.

We’re often advised not to believe everything we are told but with the support of firm, scientific evidence – we can discover the facts of the matter when, as suggested in the Autopsy trailer, the body tells the story.

Dr Shepherd was able to confirm the singer’s claims of a legitimate skin disorder – something that many say came as posthumous vindication. He was telling the truth and it appeared that he only bleached his skin to combat the disorder, which formed irregular white-patches all over his body. In this respect, many feel the series has brought clarification and introduced us to an element of truth. As uncomfortable and invasive as it may feel at times, perhaps we as viewers simply thrive off the opportunity to become ‘celebrity sleuths’ for a day, truth-seekers and fulfilling our innate curiosities.

Sadly, for the legacy and image Whitney Houston the findings of her autopsy report were not nearly as emancipating. Her tumultuous battle with cocaine and alcohol, clips and photos from her hay-day juxtaposed with those from her fatal demise was upsetting to say the least and left many of us squirming in our seats.

It did not get any more comfortable as the hour-broadcast featured an interview with a drug dealer who claims he sold the Houston cocaine the night before she died. The dealer not only showed a lack remorse for his self-expressed role in her death (which had Whitney fans fuming) but added insult to injury by describe Houston as a ‘has-been’ who was looking for a pick-up to which he acquiesced. Ouch! Don’t sugar-coat a thing, mate.

There it is: the villain, we have Whitney our fallen heroine and a story that ended with a significant moral. In exposing Houston’s drug battle and exploring the extent of damage it caused in such elaborate detail - the documentary serves to remind us, young and old, of the destructive effects of substance abuse.

For many, the three-part series has been a hit: it has informed, educated and evoked emotion in ways that we may never forget. It hasn’t been to everyone’s taste, but we can all appreciate that the series has indefinitely impacted the things we know and thought we knew about two of the world’s biggest megastars.

The last episode of the series shall air this evening (Tuesday 21st January) at 10pm and will be dissecting the last hours of Anna Nicole Smith, the ex-Playboy model and actress.




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