When you’re watching porn, especially one of those gauzy-lensed sensual ones, you generally do not find yourself thinking, Boy, that porn star fellow must be quite the gentleman at home.
This is because most of us recognize that porn is not real life, that it is in fact a performance meant to elicit in you a certain response, to please and pleasure you as you pleasure yourself in hopes that the makers of the porn can extract more of your time and money. A porn star’s performance in a video is no better evidence of his true nature than a pop singer’s tender ballad is a glimpse into how she is when she’s in love, or a soda pop company’s woke Super Bowl commercial is proof of a deep and principled commitment to the progressive cause. These truths seem self-evident, and yet when a famous and beloved athlete puts out the same kind of intentionally manipulative, and equally carefully produced and edited content, it seems like there is an unlimited number of people and publications willing to buy the illusion.
The conceit of LeBron James’s new HBO chat show, The Shop, which debuted on Tuesday night, is that LeBron and his childhood friend and business partner, Maverick Carter, travel to barbershops across the country discussing the issues of the day with a rotating cast of celebrities. HBO describes The Shop as “Offering unfiltered conversation and debate,” and it purports to reproduce the authentic black barbershop experience. The patrons of this “black barbershop”—scare quotes meant to imply that the phenomenon is being used by the show primarily as a signifier, not to imply that the phenomenon doesn’t exist, as I know well from frequenting these kinds of barbershops and hair salons over the years trying to sit still while someone faded or cornrowed or dreadlocked my hair—hold forth on the mundane and the profound with an openness only found in a safe, accepting, truly communal environment. You’d be forgiven for thinking this show depicted just that, if not for the presence of all those cameras.
The prevailing take on The Shop’s debut episode is that it was great, mostly because of its purported honesty. “LeBron James’ The Shop Is an Unfiltered Glimpse Into the Black Experience in Present-Day America” is the headline of Slate’s wide-eyed appraisal of the episode. The Washington Post felt similarly, calling the show a “rare, unfiltered glimpse” into LeBron’s mind. Amazing: Slate, the Washington Post, and HBO all agree that an edited, literally filtered TV program created, produced, and starring a world-famous athlete with a notoriously and meticulously maintained image is best described as “unfiltered.” The Ringer and the Sporting News at least consulted a thesaurus before copying The Show’s press release language, writing, respectfully, that the episode was “honest” and “candid.”
Unless these people previously thought LeBron to be some diffident phony nervously tugging his shirt when asked a difficult question—something he most certainly is not, which does indeed set him apart from other celebrities with similar fame—I don’t think LeBron’s “honesty” and “candidness” are really what’s being complimented here. Instead, I think what most impressed the articles’ authors was the perception that LeBron was revealing his true thoughts about controversial matters. I can understand that impulse. For an athlete of LeBron’s status to choose of his own volition to speak openly about beliefs of his that could very well offend a large segment of his fanbase would certainly be noteworthy, and probably even laudable. So what exactly did that magical aura of the black barbershop bewitch from the “unfiltered” mouths of LeBron and his fellow celebs? Not much of anything actually controversial, it turns out.
There are a few moments many of The Shop’s reviewers point to as evidence of this supposed lack of a filter: when LeBron described his teenaged self’s mindset upon leaving his predominantly black community to play high school basketball at a predominantly white Catholic school, during which the young LeBron was intensely skeptical of his white school’s true intentions in bringing and at least outwardly welcoming him into their midst; when he talked about how the incident when someone spray-painted a racial slur on the gate of a house he owns clarified for him once again that even great wealth cannot insulate a black person from racism in this country; when he discussed how the killing of Trayvon Martin affected him so deeply as the father of young black boys, and how that feeling inspired in him the will to use his fame as a platform to speak out against injustice; and the trials and tribulations of celebrity, which in his experience differ for white celebs and black ones.
LeBron speaks intelligently and charismatically on these topics and more. But it’s hard to imagine a single earnest viewer (so no, Jason Whitlock doesn’t count) of a LeBron James chat show on HBO who would be even halfway offended by anything LeBron had to say. (In no small part because he’s said most of it before, just without the accompanying cuss words.) The Shop knows its audience. Just by looking at the guest list, you could probably get close to scrawling the exact boundaries of the show’s targeted demographic: Jon Stewart, Draymond Green, Michael Bennett, Snoop Dogg, Odell Beckham Jr., Vince Staples, Jerrod Carmichael. This isn’t the group you call in if you’re trying to reach out to Todd and Martha Deplorable.
I’d bet my lucky quarter that there were more viewers on Tuesday night who had never watched LeBron play an entire game than there were people who would be scandalized by the notion that LeBron James doesn’t think racism magically disappeared the day Obama was sworn in. In fact, the only opinion floated in the show’s entire 30-minute running time that ran the risk of inspiring a real moment of pearl-clutching amongst the HBO set was when Carmichael trashed the middlebrow-with-a-monocle Broadway sensation, Hamilton, which is telling in its own right. It’s the allegedly “controversial” statements The Shop presented to its already like-minded viewers that speaks to what is really going on with the show, and why the hosannahs about its “honesty” are so soft-headed.
The reason The Shop exists is to make LeBron James money—in the short term and the long. The short-term play involves coaxing people into The Shop with the blinding light of celebrity and the illusion of truly personal, intimate conversations between celebrities, people who generally believe themselves to be skeptical of the reputation-burnishing products produced on behalf of future billionaires. The long-term play is to convince the public to associate LeBron’s brand with qualities like honesty and candidness and sociopolitical engagement so that the brand becomes more favored in the eyes of its most coveted consumers, so that the brand can accumulate more of the money and power it seeks. It’s a celeb-laden Twitter thread come to life, meant to get your faves and retweets and follows now in hopes you’ll buy the product they’re shilling in their sponsored tweets. It’s Carpool Karaoke: Conscience Rap Edition. It’s the same as Kevin Durant’s self-made hagiography, or Maria Sharapova’s, or Cristiano Ronaldo’s, or Manchester City’s. Or a Wendy’s marketing exec trying to convince millennials that the brand’s voice is somehow more “authentic” than its competitors. Or LeBron’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy. Treating propaganda like objective, insight-rich information that reveals the true inner selves of the subjects on screen is naive when individuals do it and embarrassing when it’s done by publications that should know better.
The point here isn’t that the things LeBron and Co. say in The Shop are insincere or fake or anything of the sort. It’s probably safe to say that LeBron does genuinely hold all the beliefs he espoused on Tuesday’s episode, and some of the tidbits revealed there—LeBron’s regret about naming his son after him out of concern that he’s saddled his son with a legacy that’s impossible to live up to; Odell Beckham’s likening of his own fame to a lion’s life in a zoo—were genuinely interesting snapshots of these people’s incredibly fascinating lives. Rather, the point is that the things said in The Shop are calculated, risk-free, decidedly filtered, stated for the predominate purpose of bolstering LeBron’s brand. It’s to position LeBron as a bold truth-teller without him having to actually tell any bold truths. And it should be treated as such.
Take what was probably the only unsafe moment of the entire episode. In a discussion about how important it is for members of the black community to put aside petty grievances and potential jealousies to come together and help each other advance, Draymond Green said, comparing other, more ostensibly successful population groups, “A Jew is gonna look out for a Jew, a Chinese man is gonna look out for a Chinese man.” Stewart, himself Jewish, attempted to humorously object by smiling and letting out a long and exaggerated “Ehhhhhhhhhhh...” Green continued: “You can ‘Ehh’ all you want, Jews look out for Jews. Period.”
This interaction wasn’t the episode’s most important because of what Green said, exactly, but because of how its presence served the show’s interests. Green isn’t the star of The Shop, nor is he a producer, nor is he the owner of the production company that created it (that would be Uninterrupted, an analogue of The Players’ Tribune that attempts to divorce athletes’ stories from the journalists who would otherwise be tasked with telling them so that the athletes can control their own narrative and omit any unpleasant details they’d rather not have out there). If anyone on that set truly gives no fucks about how the things he says in front of his peers and the world think, it’s Green. He had to know that the “Jews look out for Jews” line might potentially land him in some hot water, but he said it anyway. The editors had to know this also, and they included it in the final cut anyway.
In saying those words while filming, Green did the exact thing that LeBron and the other, more circumspect participants want you to think they were doing but would almost certainly never actually follow through on, which is let their guard down far enough to reveal an opinion or side of themselves that might noticeably cut rather than grow their earning potential. By including it in the episode, The Shop validates its own premise, having a moment to point to and say “See, there’s an example of a moment when shit got real and we showed it in all its off-putting glory.” I have a sneaking suspicion that had it been LeBron who uttered the same line (an exceedingly unlikely proposition), a dutiful editor would’ve quietly snipped that part out without even having to be asked, just one more cut like the hundreds of others that made the final version of The Shop: Episode 1 precisely as “unfiltered” as those in charge desired.
The specter of Michael Jordan looms large over the episode and its reception. He’s invoked explicitly twice in the show: once when Green makes his case for why LeBron should own his belief that he has surpassed Jordan to become the greatest basketball player ever, and again when Bennett says how powerful it is that little kids today have an outspoken LeBron to look up to for moral guidance when the young Bennett wanted that same guidance from Jordan but never received it. The distinction seems clear: on one side is the MJ, he of the infamous (and probably apocryphal) “Republicans buy sneakers, too” story, and on the other is LeBron, calling the president a “bum” while wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt.
To my eyes, the distinctions between LeBron and Jordan are much smaller than their similarities. LeBron explicitly patterned his game and career with Jordan in mind, from wearing MJ’s number to wanting to achieve MJ’s global icon status to his goal of one day owning an NBA franchise himself. LeBron is more of an evolution than a revolution of the Jordan superstar archetype, and their differing approaches to political engagement reflects that. In Jordan’s time, the smart money was in staying publicly silent on the matters of the day and letting his game and his brand speak for him. For LeBron, in this era of even more exaggerated conspicuous consumption thrusting identity to the fore of social and political life, it’s better business for him to project an image of social consciousness—which is true regardless of whether his inner social consciousness is genuine or cynical. If The Shop is revealing of anything, it’s that society has progressed to a point where it strengthens a megastar’s brand to acknowledge racism rather than ignore it.