Director Jodi Gomes "opens with a bold thesis statement. 'If the culture wars could have a 9/11, it’s February 1st, 2004.'" says Judy Berman of The New York Times Presents FX on Hulu documentary. "If this is a compelling claim, it’s also a bit of self-mythologizing on the part of the talking head who utters it, Parents Television and Media Council President Tim Winter. The organization that got its start stoking outrage over awards-show profanity and Ellen’s coming-out plot leveled up in the public consciousness with a successful campaign to flood the FCC with complaints over the Super Bowl incident. It benefits the cause of censorship to insist on the inherent significance of a split-second’s worth of exposed nipple. Even as it pushes back on the demonization of Jackson, Malfunction never steps outside this surprisingly conservative frame." Berman adds: "But Malfunction also, weirdly, neglects to really challenge the presumption Winter and his ilk make, that there’s something self-evidently harmful about exposing sports fans to blink-and-you-miss-it quantities of nipple. It is, after all, just a body part—the very same one mothers use to feed their babies, sometimes in public, because the hunger of an infant waits for no woman. Could any Super Bowl viewer possibly have been harmed in any meaningful way by the sight of Janet Jackson’s bare breast? Many cosmopolitan societies find this quintessentially American brand of prudishness hilarious. This reluctance to suggest that perhaps the whole scandal should’ve been forgotten by Monday morning feels egregious when you consider the social and political climate of the intervening years. While Gomes correctly notes that the movement to censor sexually explicit entertainment was once bipartisan (see: Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center), by the early 2000s, that 'family values' cause was dominated by the religious right, and conservatives in general. A little over a decade later, the same crowd was shrugging off Donald Trump’s 'grab ’em by the p*ssy' talk and alleged extramarital affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels, among other flagrant examples of American moral decline. This heel-turn revealed the shallowness of the right’s original crusade. Nipplegate was, in large part, about sexism and racism. But it behooves us to understand that it was also, in ways extremely relevant to our present predicament, about hypocrisy, political capital and—to use a term from Jackson’s lexicon—control."
Malfunction gives everybody a voice except Janet Jackson, which paves the way for Justin Timberlake potential redemption: "What is notably missing is an account from Jackson herself—a development that production can’t possibly control, but one that ultimately affects the final product in a deeply noticeable way," says Shannon Miller. "And while some moments offer enlightening context, Malfunction still leaves the viewer with shards of a story that only the artist can reasonably glue together. It ends up serving as more of a platform for Timberlake’s potential redemption (yes, even with the inclusion of some apt criticism), which feels like an especially egregious outcome that raises questions about who this documentary is for." Miller adds: "More importantly, both documentaries detail the ways that Timberlake not only benefited from the misogyny that hindered the success of these women but also stoked and repeatedly prospered from it. In both cases, the artist was able to evade consequences and scrutiny from those in power. He even benefitted artistically, whether it was through music that vilified Spears or a return to the Super Bowl in 2018, where he got to glibly reference the disaster in his halftime performance. In both works, it’s clear that these women suffered unearned consequences and are still rebuilding to this day. Framing Britney Spears distilled the complex matter of Spears’ conservatorship and positioned itself as the start of her long-awaited vindication. There was a clear sense of purpose, an effort to hold an unforgiving mirror up to a public that participated in the pop star’s downfall. With Jackson, there doesn’t appear to be a similar sense of urgency. There is no paparazzi or conservative pundit to show marginal remorse for their role in her descent. There is no high-level network exec to admit that such vociferous backlash was unnecessary. To Malfunction’s credit, it never claims to offer redemption for Jackson. But the difference in tones between these two approaches within the same documentary series is jarring."
Malfunction feels less urgent because the reckoning over "Nipplegate" already happened: "The sea change it’s encouraging has already happened," says Daniel D'Addario. "After a years-long process of reckoning with and re-evaluating incidents from the recent history of popular culture, Jackson is generally regarded as a recording-industry legend, her shaming a piquant but half-forgotten incident that pales in comparison to her musical legacy. This is not meant to minimize what she went through in the moment but to suggest that the moment does not and should not define the way we see her today: Indeed, the film itself concludes with Jackson’s 2019 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Jackson’s honor came a year after the NFL was widely criticized for inviting Timberlake back to perform at the Super Bowl in 2018. (Earlier this year, Timberlake apologized publicly to both Jackson and Spears, a sign of how far the public mood had shifted on both figures.) That’s not to say that there aren’t intriguing questions to be explored in Jackson’s particular star persona, or that there isn’t inherent interest in what literally happened onstage at the Super Bowl. To the latter question, Malfunction suggests that some things are meant to remain mysteries: Despite access to various parties involved behind the scenes and to the NFL commissioner at the time, the documentary ultimately arrives in a place of uncertainty as to what was really meant to happen at the end of Jackson and Timberlake’s duet. Indeed, this strikes the viewer as a place where greater context earlier on might have helped: Among Jackson’s deficits in facing a public storm was her desire for privacy and refusal to back down, both traits that seem inherent in the Jackson musical dynasty. As such, her silence on the incident now seems unbreakable."
Malfunction is a peculiar documentary: "Like Framing Britney Spears, it is most successful as a speed-read, an almost bullet-pointed rundown of the controversy at hand," says Kevin Fallon. "Without the clear and brisk context that Framing Britney Spears gave to the conservatorship she was under and the theories as to why it might have been abusive, I’m not sure the progress that has happened in her case would have ever come to fruition. Likewise, Malfunction offers as close to a tick-tock of what likely happened the night of that fateful Super Bowl halftime show in 2004 as we’re going to get. The event’s producers, CBS and MTV executives, and those in Congress and the lobbyist world who were hellbent on eviscerating Janet Jackson are all interviewed. Security camera footage insinuating what might have been a rogue decision to alter Jackson’s wardrobe is included. The amount of gratification you receive from watching Malfunction depends on what your goal might be. Framing Britney Spears, for example, was an excellent tutorial on the major news story. As far as actual, verifiable accusations of impropriety, or the voice of Spears herself? It lacked both. Similarly, Malfunction presents a timeline and an engaging reconsideration of a cultural discourse. But the most pressing voices—Jackson’s and Timberlake’s—are missing. That said, there’s an immense amount of gratification to be had from the rewriting of history to how it should have been."
Malfunction was inspired by the reaction to Framing Britney Spears: "In the days immediately following the premiere of the (first) Britney film, we started noticing that there were a number of folks on Twitter who were saying, 'But what about Janet Jackson?'" says showrunner Mary Robertson. "With the Britney films, we’ve been so moved by seeing the power of marrying really rigorous New York Times journalism with matters that others might have trivialized in the past. It seemed that there was certainly an opportunity to do that with the story of Janet Jackson and the Super Bowl." Director Jodi Gomes adds: "Ironically, after the Britney episode, I was one of those people saying, 'Hmm, I wonder about Janet?' I got the call shortly afterwards saying that The New York Times was going to explore it. One of the things that I was attracted to is that it was one of those stories where I think we all think we know it until you get in and start peeling back the layers of the onion."