‘Red Band Society’: Too much sentiment could be fatal
This new young-adult Fox series is certainly going to divide audiences. For one thing, it tends to romanticize being young and sick. “Red Band Society” is set in a light-filled pediatric hospital ward whose large poster-filled rooms look like dorm caves, where half a dozen teens with serious illnesses flirt, party, and sneak off campus. (Cough, medical marijuana, cough.) And no one, including Octavia Spencer’s fierce boss Nurse Jackson and Dave Annable’s McDreamy Dr. McAndrew, really minds because, well, the kids aren’t all right healthwise.
One boy, Charlie (Griffin Gluck), is in a coma, but his thinking is perky and funny as he provides the voiceover narration. “This is me talking to you from a coma,” he says at the start of the premiere Wednesday night at 9. “Deal with it.” Comas, it seems, might be kind of a cool space.
And the show, adapted from a Spanish series by executive producer Steven Spielberg, can be unabashedly manipulative. You can’t be surprised when a sappy montage starts rolling along to the ethereal moanings of Coldplay; the show comes directly out of the tear-jerker tradition of movies such as “Love Story,” “Dying Young,” and, most obviously, “The Fault in Our Stars.” There’s no question: It is trying to break your heart.
But then, what can I say? It does break your heart, to some extent, if you’re willing to let go of your cynicism for an hour. Over the decades, we’ve seen plenty of teen material on TV. Long before the book world fell deeply in love with Young Adult fiction, TV was all over the YA experience, with entire networks, including MTV, ABC Family, and the CW, devoted to questions of sexuality, bullying, depression, alcohol, drugs, and parental divorce. ABC’s “My So-Called Life” from 1994 remains a benchmark of all YA stories. “Red Band Society” is just another prettied-up TV YA tale, but with issues of mortality wound into it. The kids are coming of age and facing the usual conflicts, but the present threat of death makes it all seem a bit more high-stakes and poignant.
I’m not going to hold the illness theme against the show, though I will defect if the sentimentality becomes overplayed and cloying. The idea of anyone, kids or adults, putting on a brave front in the face of suffering can be very powerful, but not if we get our faces rubbed in it.
The premiere does a quick job of introducing each character in the ward, including a heartless mean girl cheerleader named Kara (Zoe Levin) who is stricken with heart failure and now waiting for a transplant. I’m hoping each of the patients will become more specific and layered after the pilot, which, like so many pilots, tries to accomplish too much too quickly; unfortunately, Fox provided critics with only one episode. Some of the actors are likable and promising, particularly Charlie Rowe as the rebellious but soulful Leo and Nolan Sotillo as his roommate, the quiet newcomer Jordi. Both of these characters have bone cancer, and their bond has great dramatic potential.
And Spencer is a rich no-nonsense presence, with her “Scary Bitch” coffee mug and the way she refers to Kara as “Rosemary’s Baby.” Let’s hope the writers make her into more than just a godsend with a heart of gold. The kids deserve better, and so do we.