Be Good Johnny Weir, a peculiarly thoughtful new documentary series about be-spangled Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir, premiered on the Sundance Channel last night and we gave it a watch. And you know what? The kid's all right.
Were you expecting us to say he was "fabulous"? Which, well, yes. This is the most obvious thing about him: Johnny Weir is, by most conventional definitions, fabulous. The 25-year-old Pennsylvania native is unapologetic about loving to wear "dead things" — elaborate fur coats and hats — and other high-fashion accoutrement. He often dons wigs or kerchiefs for impromptu amateur fashion shoots with his best friend, Paris. The two boys are shown in the first segment of the show naked-ish in a bathtub, conducting a fake interview about Weir while he wears a blonde wig and affects a Russian accent. In another segment, the two gents roll around on a bed together, loose-limbed and seemingly unconcerned (or perhaps deliberately provoking?) the inevitable questions about the exact nature of their relationship.
Whether Johnny Weir is gay or not has already been widely debated (with astuteness!) and, oddly enough, that particular elephant isn't really the focus of Sundance's show. It was addressed briefly last night, with Weir issuing his usual standard: Who he goes to bed with or on dates with has nothing to do with his sport. Which is true! His off-ice personality is one thing, and what he does in competition is entirely another. Or, at least it is in a vacuum. But given the fact that Weir has agreed to be filmed for a reality show, and has done shirtless, glittery promos for the series, isn't he inviting the question only to then call us nosy for asking it?
There is absolutely an air of homoeroticism at work in the series — we get many close-ups of Weir's wiry frame and plenty of lusty, lingering shots of his cutesy-pootsey competitors: clean-cut American rival Evan Lysacek, lupine Swissman Stéphane Lambiel, and frequently shirtless Frenchie Brian Joubert. But the theme certainly isn't introduced for purposes of teasing or demeaning. Rather the filmmakers seem intent on showing us that hey, look. Here are some really top-notch athletes (yes, they really are) who aren't nearly as hung-up on butchness and some jockish idea of masculinity as other sportos can be. And shouldn't we respect and welcome that — let it represent Us Americans as much as we let other individual Olympic phenoms (Michael Phelps, e.g.) be our avatars — rather than constantly snicker about something that these dudes clearly aren't ashamed of?
In that regard the show is a bit schizophrenic. What did seem shiny and gay and ridiculous in promos is, in fact, a strangely ruminative and Terrence Malick-esque affair. The marketing department at the Sundance Channel seems to want us to tune into Being Johnny Weir for some sort of gay-'n-flauntin'-it homo fantasia on Olympic themes. Just look at those ads! But what we get in the actual airing is a pleasingly left-of-center portrait of a moody and driven man on a mission, one who acts the way he wants to act and talks the way he wants to talk because he ultimately trusts his skating to speak for itself. Back in that vacuum, it would. But out here in the real world, profession and persona sadly get muddied together. By the media, by his competitors (Lysacek often makes softly barbed little remarks about Weir's "style" being different from his own), and by Weir himself. As a standalone documentary, Be Good Johnny Weir makes a noble effort to divorce Weir the Personality from Weir the Skater — or at least to show that they can coexist perfectly well without negative interference — but the whole packaging is doing detriment to this goal.
So let's be a little upfront about it: We maybe got a little bored watching last night. What started out intriguing and a bit prurient — boys named Paris! bathtub romps! shirtless bed rolling! — quickly became just another something about sports. Which is good for Weir and everyone who made the thing, but bad for those of us to whom Sundance promised something else. Yes, we'll admit it. We were vaguely (actively? desperately?) hoping for garish gay spectacle, if only so we could confirm the Weir stereotype we had in our heads. Now we have all this annoying shading to deal with; Weir's clear-eyed humility, his relaxed intelligence. Darn it, we were hoping for Justin Suarez On Ice. Instead we got a "pop star" who didn't seem like much of a pop star at all. Weir appears, by the end, to be a fairly typical American twentysomething gay/bi-/whatever guy who happens to be a really fucking good figure skater. Bizarre career aside, Johnny really might be sort of normal. Which could prove to be the most interesting thing about him!
Or, if we're honest with ourselves, it could be a little disappointing.
Really, we're just hoping for more snarly tension between Lysacek and Weir. That's the truly interesting stuff. And then, you know, there'd be the gradual realization that they're terribly in love with each other... But we'd settle for more Joubert. More Joubert would be just fine.