[Editor’s Note: “Girl, I must warn you…” this review will make liberal use of New Edition, Bobby Brown, and Bell Biv Devoe song titles and lyrics. Why? That’s “My Prerogative.”]
It may seem like a stretch to compare BET’s “The New Edition Story” to the critically acclaimed biopic “Straight Outta Compton.” After all, N.W.A.’s gangsta rap courted controversy while New Edition’s lyrics only got salty when they accused “Mr. Telephone Man” of a faulty connection. Nevertheless, just as N.W.A. shaped hip-hop, the miniseries gives rightful context to how influential New Edition was on its own. Styled as a New Edition of the Jackson 5, the group perfected the model for all the boy bands to come, including New Kids on the Block, Boyz II Men, ’N Sync, and the Backstreet Boys. They also successfully transitioned from the bubble gum style of their early songs to becoming pioneers of New Jack Swing.
As with N.W.A., the drama of just being in New Edition is part of the story’s trainwreck/bootstrap appeal. Shady record contracts are such the norm in these types of projects that they’ve become tropes, and we see New Edition — and their hard-working families — get taken advantage of multiple times. Fortunately, they proved that they could “stand the rain,” only to have to deal with a far more insidious enemy: infighting.
The limited series doesn’t shy away from the fact that Bobby Brown deserves both a lot of the blame and credit for continued interest in the band. In fact, the series even opens with the New Mexico leg of their notorious “Home Again” reunion tour in which Brown’s bruised ego led to a disastrous brawl and gun play. But even as his bad boy antics forced his own band to say, “Cool It Now” and vote him out the first time, it resulted in strong solo efforts (every member including Brown) and side projects (Bell Biv Devoe, Heads of State). And the reunions? They just keep coming, as evidenced by this project in which all six members are co-producers.
What keeps bringing them back together, this brotherhood, is also what makes the miniseries so engaging. In the first night’s installment that was given to critics for review, we see the sweeter side of the group, starting when they were all young kids in Boston competing in talent contests and still feeling that “Popcorn Love” in their hearts. As with the band members themselves, it’s this bonding period — dreaming big and getting tough-love conditioning by their first manager Brooke Payne — that keeps us coming back for more than just the “Poison” power plays and run-ins with the law.
Nostalgia alone could fuel the three-night limited series. “Every Little Step” it takes brings retro joy, whether it’s a be-zippered jumpsuit, hightop fade, synched dance move or Brown’s own “Candy Girl,” Whitney Houston. To show the passage of time, there’s an over-reliance on montages, but given that this is a music-centric story, the soundtrack always had us “Lost in Love.”
While “Empire’s” Bryshere Y. Gray (as Mike Bivins) and Elijah Kelley (as Ricky Bell) are probably the biggest names among those playing the band members, all of the cast (Keith Powers as Ronnie DeVoe, Algee Smith as Ralph Tresvant, Luke James as Johnny Gill and Woody McClain as Bobby Brown) attacks their roles with glee and swagger, especially the kids who play the younger versions of the band. Other familiar faces are Yvette Nicole Brown playing one of the moms and Michael Rapaport as New Edition’s second manager.
“‘Is This the End’ of the review?” you may ask. Well, there’s still the letter grade, and there’s good reason to “Don’t Be Cruel” to this romp down R&B lane.
The three-part limited series “The New Edition Story” airs Tuesday-Thursday, January 24-26 at 9 p.m. on BET.