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'Urban Myths' Episode With Joseph Fiennes As Michael Jackson Gets Yanked

How much criticism can a single half-hour episode of television sustain before it gets the ax?

On Friday, we may have gotten our answer: An episode of the British comedy series Urban Myths — which drew widespread complaints for featuring the white actor Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson — has been canceled by Sky TV before it could air.

"We have taken the decision not to broadcast 'Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon,' a half-hour episode from the Sky Arts 'Urban Myths' series, in light of the concerns expressed by Michael Jackson's immediate family," the European pay-TV company said in a statement. "We set out to take a light-hearted look at reportedly true events and never intended to cause any offence. Joseph Fiennes fully supports our decision."

Those "concerns" had been expressed quite bluntly by the late singer's family on Twitter.

For instance: The proposed show "honestly makes me want to vomit," Jackson's daugher, Paris, wrote.

"No words could express the blatant disrespect," tweeted his nephew, Taj.

The episode was to depict Jackson on a post-Sept. 11 road trip across the U.S. in 2001, with Elizabeth Taylor, played by Stockard Channing, and Marlon Brando, played by Brian Cox. Intended to be a "light-hearted look" at an event rumored to have actually taken place, the episode had been positioned as a satire by its creators.

"It's a sketch about a story that could have been a legend or could have been true," Fiennes told AFPTV in Rome early last year, though he, too, admitted he "was shocked" that he was cast in the role of Jackson:

"You have to ask them as to why they would want to cast me."

The director of the episode, Ben Palmer, told The Guardian this week that the casting was based partly on the challenge of matching physical resemblance, partly on the basis of Fiennes' performance.

"We were really looking for the performance that could unlock the spirit, and we really think Joe Fiennes has done that," Palmer said. "He's given a really sweet, nuanced, characterful performance."

To be sure, though, the questions came fast and furious — especially since the announcement was made smack in the middle of last year's #OscarsSoWhite controversy over a lack of diversity in the entertainment industry.

And the release of the trailer for the upcoming season, which as you can see above features footage from the Jackson episode and others, did nothing to stem the criticism.

It appears that trailer is the only glimpse we'll get of the now-notorious episode.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.

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