'Rock This Boat: New Kids on the Block': TV Review

Rock This Boat New Kids on the Block Still - H 2015
Jeffrey Neira/CBS

Rock This Boat New Kids on the Block Still - H 2015

Less manufactured drama would improve this look at superfan culture

Pop goes the fandom.

On January 14, The TV Guide Network will be rebranded as Pop, avoiding any further confusion about its ties to the unaffiliated TVGuide.com and TV Guide Magazine. The new channel will "celebrate the fun of being a fan," and plans to roll out an ambitious amount of programming. None of its new series, though, embodies that fandom aspect quite like Rock This Boat: New Kids on the Block, which follows seven groups of superfans aboard a NKOTB-themed weekend cruise.

The half-hour series will join a slate of Pop's recent acquisitions (like the Canadian comedy Schitt's Creek, starring Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara) as well as syndicated series Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210. But Rock This Boat is the only series that seems to really stick to Pop's new focus, giving a real look at what being part of a rabid fandom feels like.

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To that effect, Rock This Boat maintains an outsider feel when it comes to the New Kids. After finding its late '80s and early '90s fan base still largely intact, the group reunited in 2008, and has been on world tours — and featuring in its own cruise — ever since. Yet Rock This Boat doesn't spend time with the group, instead focusing on the fans who have often sacrificed to see them. Jordan Knight, Donnie Wahlberg, Danny Wood, Joey McIntyre, and Jonathan Knight are seen from a distance, including furtive glimpses down cruise ship corridors, followed by ecstatic screaming and crying fans. The camera feels like it isn't allowed past the VIP rope, either, which provides for a more authentic fan experience.

But even for a half-hour show, manufacturing enough interest to keep watching these fans — sisters from Seattle, a bridezilla, a group of single moms and others — flailing over the very mention of the men is a struggle. In one instance, the bridezilla's bridesmaids forget the bag with their dresses at the hotel, but they miraculously arrive just before the ship takes off. Yet, the bride continues to be overly dramatic about it for several episodes, while her bridesmaids huddle in their cabin and uselessly discuss their guilt over the near-miss.

Where Rock This Boat succeeds, though, is in showing fandom culture as a kind of emotional shelter. "We've been through some pretty major shit," one of the women says specifically, although all of them convey it generally. There's also something to it showcasing women — not teenage girls — who weep and collapse at the sight of their celebrity crush (as well as the kind of men who book these cruises in the hope that these women will collapse into their beds).

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Sociologists can make of this what they may, because Rock This Boat is not interested in exploring that particular aspect of things (it is, essentially, an extended advertisement for the New Kids' cruise, especially since Wahlberg has produced the show, and the featured fans get what seems like atypical access). But under the manic editing, dance floor strobe lights, forced drama and snippets of the New Kids singing, dancing and shirtless, is a documentary that does what a good documentary should strive for: to shine a light on some aspect of culture that hasn't previously been examined. 

With its newly defined focus on pop culture content, Pop will be competing with well-established brands like E! and Bravo. And while on the surface Rock This Boat seems exactly like the kind of frothy content that already appears on television, buried beneath is actually something that could be different. Pop is probably not the place to dive into that deeper exploration, but then again, where else?