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‘The New Edition Story’ Was a Perfect TV Experience

BET’s three-part miniseries about the R&B boy band made even non-fans truly care about Bobby, Michael, Ronnie, Ricky, Ralph, and Johnny

(BET)
(BET)

These are the only three things you need to know to read the rest of this article if you didn’t watch BET’s three-part biopic on New Edition, The New Edition Story:

  1. New Edition is a group that started out as a boy band in the early ’80s. They were wildly influential, simultaneously advancing soul and pop, which turned them into the first R&B-and-hip-hop-hybrid superstars.
  2. The group was famously comprised of Michael Bivins (the business-minded one), Bobby Brown (the bad boy), Ronnie DeVoe (the tall one), Ricky Bell (the funny one), and Ralph Tresvant (the lead singer). Brown was kicked out following a spat of wild incidents. He was replaced with Johnny Gill.
  3. Each episode of the series was two hours long. The first aired Tuesday night. The second aired Wednesday night. The final one aired Thursday night.

It wasn’t until the very last scene of the second episode of The New Edition Story that I realized I was all the way invested in a group I had never cared about before. By that point, we’d already been shown their origin story, initial success, first financial setback, climb past neighborhood stardom to proper stardom, second financial setback, transition from children to young men, third financial setback, first big explosion (Bobby getting kicked out of the group), second big explosion (Michael convincing Johnny to join the group without discussing it with Ralph), and the reconciliation from the second big explosion. That’s actually how the second episode ends.

At one point, the group is in a dance studio and on a break from filming the video for “If It Isn’t Love,” the first single from their fifth album. They’re sitting around talking, good vibes are in the air, and everything is, at last, peaceful. There’s warm lighting and everyone is smiling, so that’s how the audience knows that things are going well, and also how the audience knows things are going to get bad. But again, the show had gotten all the way to that point — four hours in, mind you — and I felt like I didn’t have any emotional attachment to anyone in the series, or even the series itself. Then the ax fell.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Louil Silas Jr., a semi-slimy record executive played by Duane Martin, walked in and interrupted the band members while they were joking with one another. He had good news: the group’s upcoming tour, 60 shows spread across the country, was all booked up and likely to generate $30 million. Additionally, he told them that while they were on the road the record label would release their next single, for which the guys were especially excited. Then, just when it seemed like they were going to escape unharmed and happy, he shotgunned them all in the gut: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I almost forgot,” he said, and he did his very best to make it seem like the next thing he was going to say wasn’t gigantic and devastating. The guys all stared at him. He stared back at them. There was tension. There was so much goddamn tension. It was a year before anyone said anything. Then he finally spoke: “Bobby’s gonna be joining you on the tour.”

Then, a hard cut to black. The episode was over.

It felt like I’d been shoved out of a plane. I was 100 percent not expecting to feel that way about New Edition. Or any sort of way, really. It was right then that I realized how hard the show had worked to get to that point, and to draw out that specific response. It got me.

The New Edition Story was not a perfect TV show, but it was a perfect TV experience. It had just about every piece that a miniseries like that needs to have to make it feel weighty and worthwhile. (It probably didn’t hurt that the members of the group were producers on the miniseries.) The list:

It has the ideal music group story line. They start out as innocent kids. → Then they get famous, but they get screwed over in the process. (There’s always a scene in these shows where the group gets handed a check and it’s for way, way, way less than they were anticipating.) (In this case, the group gets a check for $1.87.) → Then they get more famous. → Then the Bad Boy phase starts and one or more of the members start acting out. → Then someone goes too far. (Among other examples, there’s a scene here where Bobby Brown is seen snorting cocaine in a car while getting pleasured by two different women.) → Then there’s more infighting and also more success and you can tell things are going to fall apart. → Then things fall apart. → Then things start to come back together and it looks like, “Hey, maybe everything’s going to be fine.” → Then a string of truly terrible things happen and things really fall apart. (In this case, two important people nearly die, one from a heart attack, one from a drug overdose.) → Then something happens to bring them all back together again years later. (In this case, it’s Ronnie DeVoe’s wedding.) → Then there’s the big happy finale. (In this case, it’s New Edition performing at the BET 25th anniversary show.) It’s all here. And it’s all great.

It has the perfect group for this kind of thing. Shows like this, where a network gets the rights to someone or some group’s musical story, work on three different levels. The first level is when they’re fun (or funny) because a very bad product got churned out and so we all get to sit around and make fun of it for a couple of hours while it’s on (I will never forgive Lifetime for what it did to Missy Elliott in the Aaliyah movie). The second is when they’re good (or great) because they’re celebrating a person or a group that’s already recognized as canon and so we all get to sit around and absorb the glow of excellence for a couple of hours (for example, in 1992 ABC ran a miniseries on the Jacksons called The Jacksons: An American Dream, and it was excellent).

The third level, though, which is where this series falls, is the most enjoyable because it’s the one where they feature an act that deserved to be in consideration for that canon designation but hadn’t quite gotten there yet. That’s New Edition in 2017.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Here’s what Nelson George, perhaps the most insightful and astute music writer, wrote about them in his 1992 book Buppies, B-boys, Baps, And Bohos: Notes on Post-Soul Black Culture: “New Edition begins this still young decade as one of black music’s most important institutions.” Here’s what The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica, writing about New Edition being chosen as the subject of this miniseries, wrote about them just a couple of days ago: “Few groups in modern black pop are as deserving of this treatment as New Edition, which transported the elegance of the male vocal groups of the 1970s into the first wave of R&B’s dance with hip-hop in the late 1980s.” Here’s what I’m writing about what both of those guys wrote about them all those years apart: “They’re both exactly fucking right.”

Somehow, despite the literal tens of millions of albums either the group or its eventual spinoffs made and sold, and despite their overwhelming influence on the shape and arc of R&B and hip-hop, as well as the shape and arc of all of the boy bands that followed them, New Edition has never been properly appreciated or deified. Maybe this is the beginning of that?

It has the neat little movie nerd tidbits in there. For example, I mentioned Duane Martin earlier. His part in The New Edition Story was tiny (he has, maybe, five total minutes of screen time), but still, he was in it, and that’s neat because one time he also had a tiny part in a Boyz II Men video, and Boyz II Men was discovered by Michael Bivins. We can go deeper, too: Brooke Payne, New Edition’s manager, is played by Wood Harris. Wood Harris and Duane Martin both were in Above the Rim together. More on Harris: In Above the Rim, Harris’s character starts firing gunshots into a crowd after a basketball game, gets shot by security, and dies. In The New Edition Story, Harris’s character almost dies when someone else shoots a gun after a concert. And it just goes on and on. There’s a giant spider web’s worth of connections to be made like that, and that kind of thing is fun to think about.

It has the neat little music nerd tidbits in there. For example, Faizon Love plays Maurice Starr, the record producer who discovered New Edition at his talent show in 1982. He has a quick part in the movie; it’s just enough to let you know that he was important, but his existence is only validated as it relates to them. What they don’t mention in the show is that following him getting ousted from his contract with New Edition, Starr would go on to create New Kids on the Block, which was the white New Edition, and calling them the “white New Edition” isn’t just me being silly, it’s literally what he called New Kids on the Block in a People cover story in 1990. And speaking of leaving things out …

It left just enough stuff out for people to say, “Hey, but what about …” For example, they hinted at Bobby Brown’s life falling apart, but didn’t dig too deeply there. (There’s only one quick mention of his marriage to Whitney Houston, but no mention of her death, or their daughter’s death, for that matter.) They also completely avoided talking about New Edition’s feud with the R&B group Guy and the death that resulted from that. And there was a quick scene that showed how Bivins discovered Boyz II Men, but no mention of the way he found the kid group Another Bad Creation. And they skip over more than half a decade of music and other happenings without so much as a glance backward. Shows like these need things like that left out so we can point them out because pointing them out makes us feel good because we are all awful and stupid.

It leaned into the music. This was a super smart move. There were full four-minute scenes where the group performed songs in their entirety. Allowing for that did two things: (1) By the end of the show, it felt a whole lot like the actors were the actual members in New Edition. After seeing them perform three or four full songs together, I thought, Oh, nope, that’s not someone playing Michael Bivins, that’s actually Michael Bivins. At the very end of the series, they have this big reunion show and Ronnie DeVoe says, “Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for Bobby Brown,” and then the guy who plays Bobby Brown comes out on stage and I promise you I was like, “Ohhhhhhh fuuuuuuck! They got Bobby to come back!” A buy-in at that level is hard to achieve. Letting whole songs play out helped the audience get there. (2) It made it feel less you were watching a movie and more like you were watching a concert, which ended up being way more important than I’d anticipated.

I liked The New Edition Story a lot. Again: I didn’t realize I felt that way until it was almost over — until it was almost too late, I suppose. But I guess that makes sense. And that might’ve even possibly been the point.