I’ve not yet watched or read The Fault in Our Stars, so I’m unqualified to comment on whether or not Fox’s new terminal-teens drama Red Band Society owes it some debts. Of the twenty-six pilots I’ll be sampling over the next few months, it’s among the small number that I was not dreading. For me the major selling point is Academy Award Winner Octavia Spencer, who was great in The Help, lent Snowpiercer some of its heart, and tore me up inside as the tough-loving mother in Fruitvale Station. I was curious to see her handling a bona fide starring role.
The premise is easy to describe but challenging to justify: it’s the ongoing saga of six teens living full-time in fictional Ocean Park Hospital in Los Angeles. The Breakfast Club motley crew includes erudite Leo (Charlie Rowe), the bald, wheelchair-bound cancer survivor; best-dressed Emma (Ciara Bravo), the implied anorexic; cocky Dash (Astro, as seen on The X-Factor), born with cystic fibrosis and waiting in line for new lungs; newcomer Jordi (Nolan Sotillo), prepping for operation on his osteosarcoma; other newcomer Kara (Zoe Levin), a snide cheerleader with heart issues both figurative and literal; and the youngest, Charlie (Griffin Gluck), who narrates the series from within a coma. He sees and knows all in ways beyond the scientific, and he doesn’t care if you think his omniscience is contrived or not.
Together this Bad News Bears sextet will live near each other, learn a few things, overcome issues, face their fears together, and get into all kinds of mischief. The pilot alone has them smoking pot, graffiti-tagging on the sly, sneaking out for beer, holding a rooftop party, and wandering all the corridors without adult escorts or any mandatory medical equipment attached — no IVs, no monitors, no 21st-century body gizmos. (If Dash has a CF port, the pilot doesn’t show or mention it.)
Riding herd on the bunch is the redoubtable Ms. Spencer as overseer Nurse Jackson. She’s no-nonsense and by-the-book when they’re looking, but leaves them a lot more leeway for misadventure than they realize. As long as they don’t interfere with primary hospital functions, she sticks to care-taking and short yet firm lectures — no sign so far of any emotionally invested proxy-parenting or harsh schoolmarm disciplining. The hospital also has a doctor (Dave Annable) and a nurse (newcomer Rebecca Rittenhouse) on call for viewers who need conventionally attractive adults hanging around, but in the pilot they’re mostly foils. For your mandatory wacky neighbor, there’s Griffin Dunne (last seen in Dallas Buyers Club) as a hypochondriac “rich hippie” who must pay ridiculous money to live at the hospital of his own free will.
The pilot is a typical series of meet-cutes and meet-fights that allow us to get to know the kids as quickly as possible. Emma seems the most shrouded because they appear to be saving her condition for a big-reveal in some later episode. On the opposite end is Leo, who’s in charge of the crafted aphorisms that make or break any TV drama pilot. He draws parallels between Henry V and his former relationship with Emma; he shares his surgery experiences with Jordi on the eve of his major event; he quotes the “band of brothers” line from the Henry V St. Crispin’s Day speech; and he delivers the best moral of the story so far, about life in a hospital in general, and life in sickness in particular: “Your body isn’t you. Your soul is you, and they can never cut into your soul.” (I usually prefer to avoid quoting lines that were in all the previews, but that one wins the episode.)
The characters so far are eminently likeable, even cheerleader Kara before and after her condition is discovered. The funniest scene is a hard swipe at Grey’s Anatomy, in which a volunteer minstrel serenades a sick child with The Fray’s “How to Save a Life”. Stewing nearby, a Top-40-conscious Kara snaps, “Your taste in music is so average, it hurts me.” (The showrunners seem to agree with her to a point: the pilot’s background music includes tunes from Brian Eno, Sleater-Kinney, and Coldplay. I sense Kara might object to the latter and has probably never heard of the other two.)
Potentially objectionable content includes Goonies-level language and today’s-TV pot use; one attempt at amateur rap; one casual, half-hearted use of “YOLO”; and one scene of perfectly yummy-looking muffins being thrown in the trash. One also has to wonder about the very premise: can they possibly keep this same set of teens on extended stay in the same hospital for six seasons and a movie? (It’s my understanding that CF doesn’t normally require lifelong incarceration.) Are their parents all rich, or equipped with the finest fantasy health insurance? Or will this be like the old Marvel comic Strikeforce Morituri, where characters had a maximum lifespan of one year and the cast was continually written out and replaced?
MCC 2014 Pilot Binge stat: Number of minutes passed before I wanted the show to go away: n/a. The Red Band Society pilot mixed humor and pathos while stopping short of full-on sappiness. If I can grant its premise a bit of relief suspension, I might try a few more episodes, if only to see more Spencer, more from the short-shrifted characters, and more jokes at Grey’s Anatomy‘s expense.
(For more information on the MCC 2014 Pilot Binge project, please visit the initial entry for the rationale, the official checklist of pilots, and links to completed entries as we go. Thanks for reading!)