On the first episode of ABC’s Boy Band—a mildly entertaining singing competition hosted by veteran TV host Rita Ora—we’re introduced to 30 teens desperate to be part of a boy band. Why?
The answer is two words and one of them is “direction.” In the tradition of summer filler TV, Boy Band is the type of show you may find yourself sadly watching and enjoying in part simply because it exists on television during a warm month. Were you a fan of the former Making the Band ABC/MTV franchise of the 2000s, which led to the formation of the now defunct bands O-Town, Da Band, Danity Kane and Day 26? Congratulations, you’re not in luck, because Boy Band is not as smartly produced as those shows, but it does have a few things going for it.
Currently in its third week and airing tonight, Boy Band bares the DNA of similar talent competitions like American Idol, The X-Factor (which birthed One Direction) and The Voice. In this case, the judges are amusingly labeled “architects” and that includes producer Timbaland, the Spice Girls’ Emma Bunton (aka Baby Spice) and Backstreet Boys member Nick Carter—all of whom judge the contestants as if they’re describing what they had for breakfast, which is to say they’re terrible judges. Almost as important as the extreme optimism of the young contestants on these talent shows is the interaction and banter between the judges; we all know part of the joy of American Idol came with seeing an unreasonably angry man (Simon Cowell) destroy hearts and dreams with just words.
Simon made judging a beautiful art. In comparison, the architects on Boy Band have little to absolutely zero chemistry, which makes their vague, unhelpful evaluations excruciating to watch, in an almost scientific way. “I think I love the look. I love the tattoos,” Baby Spice tells a formerly homeless 19-year-old contestant named Miles (who looks like a “Miles”). “Yeah, I like it.” She then giggles.
Boy Band’s dreaded auditions take place in the first two episodes, which aired back-to-back on June 22 and were unfortunately dependent on the architects’ feedback and thus mostly boring, aside from the contestants’ facial expressions. That this audition portion of the competition was filmed with no studio audience to provide live reactions is mind-boggling and made it less eventful, to the point that it became a game for me to see just how generic Timbaland could get with this feedback (and thus fun). “I think you got the whole package, young fella,” he tells a contestant named Marcus. To Brady, he notes, “You would bring a uniqueness to a band. Man.” He informs a young man named Cam: “The vocals could’a been a little better, but the way you played with it, it was very interesting.” (An aside: Rita Ora is the type of host you forget is hosting until she suddenly reappears on stage.)
What’s interesting is that I was more hypnotized by the crab shots in an Outback Steakhouse commercial than Timbaland’s judging, which really makes you appreciate the brain dexterity required to find creative ways to say “Your voice is bad.” By the end of week 1, a group of 30 contestants (who were plucked from thousands of auditions) gets narrowed to 18; they’re placed into three groups of six and advised to name themselves. The boys choose Uplift, Reverb and Six Track. The first competing six-man group, Uplift, is tasked with performing Bruno Mars’s “That’s What I Like,” a great and tiring song. Watch the video up top and try not to admire and fall in love with them.
Under this format, a final contestant from each group is eliminated to make them into five person groups, and then the show goes live so America can partake in dashing their dreams. (Sadly, my favorite, Cameron, was eliminated in this round because the architects think he’s more of a solo artist.)
An important point: Few of these guys are amazing singers, which perhaps underscores the point that the boy band appeal is more about being cute, harmonizing, synchronizing personalities who make good pop songs??? For example, there’s a 14-year-old named J. Hype who performed Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown” (a questionable choice!) during his audition, in the key of me-singing-“Love-Lockdown”-at-home and he made it through to the next round anyway because of his beatboxing skills (see the video below) and because he physically resembles a 90210 version of Justin Bieber.
Why am I watching this???
Well, despite the moderate talent, the guys are so green and wide-eyed that it’s strange how genuine they seem in their desire to be part of something bigger, as Miles says at one point. “I most definitely I want to be in a band. I’ve always wanted to be in a band,” he tells the architects. Nick responds, “That’s exactly what we wanted to hear.”
A fun break: Here’s Nick Carter choreographing a routine to “Everybody.”
Though many of the contestants have a natural charisma about them, plus distinct individual styles, they clearly need lots of work—with singing, with performing, with being on stage, rehearsing, etc. And that’s where these band competitions offer the highest entertainment value: the boot camp sessions where the talent is forced to get along with each other and learn how to be in a group. (Think of the classic Making the Band scene where Diddy makes the band members walk to get cheesecake.)
Boy Band starts to pick up once the mini-groups are formed and the boys rehearse with music experts. Here’s Reverb, in week 2, being taught how to sing with feeling. They’re learning a lot. One of them cries. I like them! “We started to see after we did that exercise, our song became more emotional,” says Brady. “We started interacting with each other on stage. It was just, you could see it. You could really see that we had bonded.”
Boy Band would be more a compelling idea if viewers got just a taste of the audition process in the beginning, if the show instead started after they’d actually made the band, and focused on where the real work begins. For now, here’s Reverb staring longingly and dramatically into a moving camera while singing a pitchy version of Rihanna’s “Stay.”