“There’s technique in this, man!” says Bryan Abrams, former lead singer of ‘90s R&B group Color Me Badd. He’s not talking about vocal approaches or songwriting skills. No, the Oklahoma City resident is demonstrating how to roll three tires at once through a garage at his current job. “If you’re happy and you know it, stack a tire!” he warbles.
It’s not “I Wanna Sex You Up.” But if Abrams were still selling records instead of Goodyears, he wouldn’t be starring in Mission: Man Band, the VH1 reality series that means to “prove once and for all that there’s life after boy bands.” He’s joined by three other recent shadow-dwellers with that accursed term forever engraved on their resumes: Chris Kirkpatrick from ‘N Sync, Jeff Timmons from 98 Degrees, and Rich Cronin from LFO. They’ll be living in Kirkpatrick’s impressive home for a month, as they try to form their own group, pump out a hit, and recapture some long lost fan love.
“It hurts when I say ‘boy band,’” Kirkpatrick admits with a wince. VH1 is banking that self-respecting music lovers feel the same way. Should the phrase ever escape their lips? Take a cue from Katie McNeil, the allegedly ball-busting exec who agrees to manage them, yet introduces herself with a proper scoff in her voice: “I was not, you know, into the whole boy band thing.”
But even if you park yourself on the couch ready to laugh at Mission: Man Band, you may be surprised at the sympathy the show wrests out of the performers’ stories. (Especially considering how choppily edited the debut episode is, cramming as much information as possible into 30 minutes.) Cronin in particular is impervious to mocking: in 2005, the “Summer Girls” songwriter was diagnosed with leukemia and has since undergone extensive treatment. The handling of this is somewhat odd, as the show includes footage of Cronin in Boston that same year, in a hospital bed and speaking to the camera about the ordeal. The source of this tape is never revealed, but it’s only a minor distraction from Cronin’s comments, as when he learned he had the disease: “My father [asked the doctor], ‘What are his chances?’ And when he said that, that had never even occurred to me, you know? ... There was a time I didn’t think I was even going to get out of bed again.”
If the project means the most to Cronin, it seems only a pain in the ass to Timmons. (Somewhere in between is Abrams, who has one baby and another on the way, and Kirkpatrick, whose feel-sorry-for-me angle is that he drinks too much because he misses being in a band.) Timmons says that he’s been writing and producing music since 98 Degrees’ heyday and has been happy to stay out of the spotlight, but agreed to participate in the project for fun. As soon as McNeil is introduced, however—by way of a mysterious missive with the letters “KM” on the envelope—Timmons balks.
McNeil sends along sheet music of the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and instructs them to learn it. “You know, instead of auditioning for this guy with this song, I’d rather not do that,” McNeil announces. They all agree to stick together and not sing, but change their minds, mostly, they say, because McNeil is a woman, and a va-va-voomy one at that. But Timmons holds out, and proceeds to spend the night pacing the hallways, confiding in the morning that he was “really upset” about the meeting. “Talking to Jeff,” Kirkpatrick says later,” I think there’s no doubt that this wasn’t what he bargained for.” It’s the episode’s first truly what-the-hell? moment.
The second results from a gimmick that, although short-lived, may make viewers turn off their TVs. McNeil tells the men that they’re going on “a little adventure. It’s a Native American ritual about new beginnings, and it’s something that’s very real.” No way a group of dudes who think auditioning is for chumps is going to allow their manager to force them to take some hokey spiritual journey, right? Wrong. Everyone’s into it, readily discussing their dreams about becoming better people and contributing to the world. Abrams tears up.
It’d be moving if it didn’t feel so obviously scripted. Mission: Man Band doesn’t try to avoid typical reality-show touches such as creatively edited dialogue or spliced-in zooms on someone’s disgusted expression, but, at least in the first episode, these are not egregious. Anyone already inured to this kind of production won’t find this series’ ploys a huge turn-off. And the teaser for the second episode is effective: Abrams starts drinking heavily! Unintentionally hilarious is Cronin’s comment about the drama, “What good is a lead singer if he isn’t sober?” Then again, this is the boy-band lifestyle we’re talking about, not rock’n'roll.