Entertainment

A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius

The Fascinating Viceland Documentary of Bam Margera

By Sam Eichner ·
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Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images

The “Where are they now?” genre of documentaries, reunion shows and micro-documentaries is littered with broken hearts and disappointment, falls from grace and once-iridescent dreams beaten down and dimmed. The question alone, “now” being the operative adverb, implies that these people have been forgotten, relegated to the shadowy margins of culture reserved for the has-beens, the burn-outs, the once-weres. But in spite of this bleak description, these programs are routinely imbued with a redemptive spirit. America, after all, loves nothing more than a good comeback story.

Related: last night, I watched the first episode of the newly revived Epicly Later’d, an awesomely titled Viceland series that “profiles legendary pro skaters for a look at their halcyon days and what they’re up to now.” The premiere’s subject was none other than Bam Margera, the smiley raconteur known more for his role in MTV’s Jackass, and, later, Viva La Bam, than his skating (although, as the episode frequently reminds us, Bam was a prodigious skater, too).

If you came of age in the aughts, like I did, you were probably aware of Jackass, even if just peripherally. Steve-O, Wee-Man, Bam, Ryan Dunn (who tragically died in a car accident in 2011) and the beatific ringleader, Johnny Knoxville were more or less the gang from Clockwork Orange, with ADHD, skateboards and way too much money. Though I never really enjoyed the show, I feel like I’ve seen it a billion times, watching with a mixture of horror and glee as a bunch of hooligans threw themselves off moving vehicles or snorted wasabi or took butt chugs or flailed around in a ball pit full of anacondas, which, even now, I can’t believe actually happened. Looking back, though, the crazier shit they didthe more cavalier they were with their bodiesthe more invincible they appeared. Nobody on Jackass, it seemed, ever incurred an injury a beer and a few good laughs couldn’t remedy.

It’s this invincibility that makes Bam’s visage, however many years later, so jarring, even heartbreaking. To see Bam now, in this documentarywith a slight gut, thinning hair, a crowned tooth and eyes that bespeak a lifetime’s worth of bad hangoversis to see an immortal fallen to earth, a powerful expression of the irrepressible id of youth beaten into submission by the passing of time. And booze. Bam, after rising to a peak of fame in his early-to-mid twenties, and especially following Dunn’s death, became a hardcore alcoholic. Returning to his Pennsylvania mansion in Epicly Later’d, which he used during the years of filming Viva La Bam, Margera, moseying around, notes that “it’s an amusement park that closed down, and now I’m stuck looking at it.” One gets the sense that he’s talking about more than just the house.

The episode, while recounting Bam’s better days, also showcases his slow path to recovery, from Barcelona back to his hometown of Pennsylvania, with the support of his wife (now pregnant), his loving parents and his friend and recovering heroin addict, Brandon Novak. In this sense, it serves as a companion piece to Steve-O Rise & Demise, which aired on MTV in 2009. That documentary was similarly fascinating, alternately tragic and cathartic. (Steve-O  was even more fucked up than Bam; with his insane whip-its addiction and nasty coke habit, which ultimately resulted in him losing his mind, he’s achieved an almost Keith Richards-esque status. It’s a wonder he’s still alive, and thriving.) But while Steve-O’s doc left fans thinking everything would be hunky-dory, Bam’s, which includes mention of a relapse, had me feeling unsure about his future.

And yet, there is something wonderfully uplifting about his story. Bam’s recovery appears to go hand-in-hand with his attempts to re-learn skateboarding. Going back to his roots, recapturing a central part of his pre-celebrity self, seems to be his new raison d’être. Where Viceland leaves him, he’s wiping out and getting back on his board, wiping out and getting back on, wiping out and getting back on.

Revealingly, he’s still not wearing a helmet.

Sam Eichner likes literature, reality television and his twin cats equally. He has consistently been told he needs a shave since he started growing facial hair.

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