Red Band Society, Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot”
Septebmer 17, 2014, 9:00 PM (EST), FOX
In FOX’s new series Red Band Society, teenagers forced to live in a hospital ward due to the debilitating nature of their illnesses form quick bonds, check things off of the teenage version of a bucket list, fall in love, and resent the things they can’t do because they’re sick. The assumption is that because these kids live in a large hospital under the sometimes distracted eyes of busy staff, they have lots of free time to get to know each other and into trouble. A strength of the show is that they aren’t victimized. They aren’t asking for pity - unless it means they can get laid, of course. Then it can be very useful. They all have being sick and under age 16 in common, but that isn’t how they’re defined.
How they’re seen by Charlie, the kid they can only interact with when they’re unconscious, is how we’re supposed to see them. He introduces each of them by their stereotypical role in a high school context. Kara is the mean girl cheerleader, Leo is the wise and long suffering veteran, Emma is the perfectionist with an eating disorder, Dash is the horny mischief-maker, and Jordi is the cute new guy. Charlie is forced to witness all of this as a silent outsider, so it makes sense that he’s extremely invested in the nuances of their relationships and the details of their past. It’s one of the few recent examples of voiceover actually adding valuable information to the show instead of being a crutch for poor storytelling.
The casting is all pretty spot on. Even though the dialogue is cringe-worthy at times, the actors, from the young and inexperienced to the seasoned and professional, all handle their roles well. In terms of character development, there’s an imbalance because the kids are much more interesting than the adults who don’t really seem to have much to do. They’re still watchable, but feel wasted. Octavia Spencer is already elevating her character Nurse Jackson who is designed to be the typical hard ass with a kind heart. There’s also Griffin Dunne as Ruben, a wealthy benefactor of the hospital who is a good source of weed and a friendly companion. Dave Annable is playing his Dr. Jack Andrew character pretty uptight so far, but he’s so hot I hope he gets some steamy storylines. I’ll be interested to see more interactions with the parents of these kids, because in the pilot, they are largely absent. The interaction between the staff and the parents could be a treasure trove of rife with of conflict and drama, but I’m not sure if the show really wants to push hard for realism. They’ll probably be involved more to explore the angst of the teenagers and hit some easy emotional beats.
I had a few laugh out loud moments from situations that weren’t all that unique or interesting. What made them funny was the timing. The show already has a unique rhythm and flow to it that lets the sweetness shine with a hint of dark comedy and a sappy line here and there. The dynamic works best when two characters are simply hanging out together. The dialogue is a bit rough. Nonsensical lines that sound profound due to the sweeping music and soft lighting are peppered throughout, making unintentional laughter almost as common as the genuinely funny jokes.
Having read The Fault in Our Stars and watched the movie, I have some doubts as to how much this show will appeal to that particular audience. Red Band Society isn’t intellectually rigorous or careful enough to avoid clichés and unearned emotion. It also doesn’t treat the illness and mortality issues in the same unblinking and reverent manner. Illness is used mostly as a plot device or a punch line. Even if the discussion doesn’t go very deep in this episode, there’s potential for future episodes to delve deeper into these topics. It isn’t easy to do in a nuanced and entertaining way, hence the success of John Green’s book when he nailed it. That doesn’t seem to be the goal here. It looks like realism and harsh truths about life pretty low on the list of priorities.
The intention is clearly for this show to be very easy to watch. They aren’t bringing up these illnesses so far to educate audiences on what it’s like to have cystic fibrosis or osteosarcoma. They want to have an extraordinary setting as a playground to let teenagers be equal parts annoying and adorable. The sets and lighting make the show look quite stylish and grandiose, which fits perfectly with the bright, fantastical tone set by Charlie’s voiceovers. I can picture grand gestures, impassioned speeches, elaborate pranks, and life-affirming decisions feeling at home in this world. The most important pieces - characters and casting - are already in place, so there’s a solid foundation in place for Red Band Society to flourish.
I can see why a show like Red Band Society should exist and could be successful. Although I’m not convinced that the format for this show can last even a full season without running out of ideas or irreparably insulting the audience’s intelligence, the great characters and actors could buy enough goodwill in order to experiment with the format until a balance is struck between depth and levity. It’s trying to be a lot of things at once - a high school comedy, a medical drama, and a primetime soap. There’s something comforting in how familiar this all feels. A lot of people are going to enjoy this show and not think very hard about the cheesy lines or the implausibility of the entire scenario. They’ll settle into the warm and fantastical atmosphere and cheer on the wins each character will earn throughout the series. It already feels natural to giggle and smile at the silly and sweet things these cute people say and do. At least in the pilot, they aren’t trying to make you cry unnecessarily. However, I suspect there may be many tears to come.
The most important pieces - characters and casting - are already in place, so there’s a solid foundation in place for Red Band Society to flourish.