Picture the following images: throngs of fans squealing in delight as their favorite boy band makes an appearance on Total Request Live; a music video featuring five attractive young men singing in harmony and dancing against the backdrop of falling water; teen magazine covers featuring dreamy headshots of these same young men. So begins the first episode of MTV’s latest celebrity “documentary,” There & Back.
Recalling the time (late 1990s and early 2000s), when boy bands made girls weep with sexual frustration and record executives very happy, this montage introduces former O-Town member and Making the Band star Ashley Parker Angel. But the show is not focused back “there,” during the height of his MTV-generated fame. Rather, it looks at his life today, including his attempts to get “back” to the celebrity and money he lost when the boy band tide turned against him and his hair-gelled brethren.
Ashley, who serves as self-aware narrator, explains, “The only girl that I have screaming at me now is my girlfriend, and she’s pregnant… Yeah, my O-Town money is long gone.” Our blue-eyed, sun-kissed protagonist is not exaggerating. Not only has Ashley’s financial situation forced him to move in with Tiffany and her mother, they have also been served several eviction notices. And he’s not the only O-Town member in dire financial straits. Jacob Underwood (the one with the dreadlocks) visits Ashley in the premiere episode and depresses everyone by admitting that he works construction to make ends meet. Worse, he spent some of his O-Town money on a pet monkey.
Now judged guilty of singing in five-part harmonies while wearing coordinated outfits, the former O-Towners here appear humiliated, as if MTV is purging itself of the boy band stain. In a recent episode, Dan Miller (the one everyone thinks is gay) stops by to invite Ashley and Tiffany to his “Boys of Summer Tour” later that evening, featuring former boy banders like Jordan Knight of New Kids on the Block. It gets worse: Tiffany informs Dan that her friend was unable to purchase tickets, not because the show was sold out, but because it was cancelled owing to low sales. Yes, Dan’s show was cancelled and no one even bothered to inform him. Awkward!
Though Ashley is not as pitiful as his old bandmates—he has a recording contract and this MTV series—the first few episodes indicate he is not getting the respect (or the advances) he wants from Soul Power Productions. He admits, “It’s not like every producer in town is dying to make a record with the O-Town guy. I get it.” This during one of the show’s “freeze frame” moments, when the action is paused and he steps out of the frame to speak directly to the audience.
Though it’s difficult to feel sorry for a six foot tall Adonis given the chance at a pop music comeback, Ashley is endearing, like an eager puppy who just wants you to rub his belly and tell him he’s been a good boy. During one direct address moment, Ashley actually utters the following banality: “The lesson I learned the last time around is that sometimes the music business is more about business than music. And that just sucks.” He means it. You almost want to ruffle his hair and give him a big plate of cookies and milk.
Ashley’s relationship with Tiffany is less adorable. Perhaps it’s the pregnancy hormones or the stress brought on by the reality TV spotlight, but thus far Tiffany has been quite the harridan, cutting on Ashley’s musical past whenever the opportunity strikes. In the first episode, she claims to think that boy bands are “corny” and that O-Town’s “Liquid Dreams” video was a “travesty.” When they move into their first home and Ashley wants to take some of his O-Town “stuff” out of storage, Tiffany quips, “Oh great, we can sell it to pay the rent.” And nothing is more emasculating than being informed by your girlfriend that her mother caught you standing naked in front of your fridge with a giant hard-on. As Ashley tries to explain himself, Tiffany’s laughter confirms that any dignity he once had is now officially gone.
I can see why Tiffany feels inclined to give Ashley the occasional reality check. He is unable to complete an errand without calling her three times and then asking someone at the grocery store to point him in the direction of the potatoes. Though he usually appears sensitive to Tiffany’s needs (she’s taking the pregnancy hard, claiming that people can see the baby’s feet hanging out of her), he also tells her, “You don’t understand, really, what it’s like to walk in my shoes… I’m coming up against a huge stereotype and lot of [bleep]. So help me here… I’m trying to write an amazing album during all of this.” (I would have pulled my unborn child out of my uterus and chucked it at Ashley’s inflated head.) Sensing he’s done wrong, Ashley sings Tiffany an apology song, sure to be single number two on his forthcoming, “amazing” album.
Tiffany is not alone in her desire to shake Ashley loose from his O-Town past. Just before Dan arrives, Ashley, broke and desperate, calls his manager, Larry Rudolph, to find out if he should also join the “Boys of Summer Tour.” This idea is quickly squashed by Larry who, clearly aware that he is on speakerphone, reasons, “O-Town is your past… I just don’t want you back in that role.” In the next scene, Ashley has a garage sale, offering remnants of his past, like a signed copy of a limited edition O-Town CD, for which a woman in a fanny pack pays $1.50.
Tiffany has been advised to avoid stress, but takes up frantic planning for Ashley’s surprise birthday party. This culminates in a crying jag, where she laments, “I’m never gonna have the baby… He hears everything going on and he’s scared.” Ashley feels differently. After he blows out the candles on his cake, the image freezes and Ashley turns to the audience: “I really feel like this is gonna be my year!” At times like these, I can’t help but root for Ashley, cheesy but so earnest.