'Red Band Society' Tries Too Hard to Make Permanently Hospitalized Children Seem Fun

The sick-teens-in-a-hospital show is emotionally manipulative even when it's trying so hard to come off as a regular teen drama.

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I will try to put this as delicately as I can: I can't imagine why someone would want to watch Fox's Red Band Society, which debuts on Fox tonight at 9. Take that statement with a grain of salt: it's an inspirational, occasionally wry drama about teenagers who are so sick they have to live in a hospital. It's aiming for a specific blend of vibes, bouncing off of self-aware young adult mortality plays like The Fault in Our Stars as well as "three cheers for the losers" high school dramedies like Glee.

But the fact remains: everyone on this show is a kid who's sick—two have bone cancer, one suffers from anorexia, another from cystic fibrosis, another from a busted ticker. For some reason the show doesn't even attempt to explain (because I can't imagine there's an explanation that makes sense) they all live together in a giant beautiful modern cathedral of a hospital, with big windows and tasteful lighting and spotless hallways for them to tear-ass through. Dave Annabale is a comforting doctor with salt and pepper hair, Octavia Spencer is a tough-but-wise nurse, and everything looks very handsome and well-designed.

What really bothered me about Red Band Society was how audaciously it tries to have its cake and eat it too. The kids are sick, so the show can lean into mawkish melodrama at any moment, but it also loudly rejects those stereotypes and exults in how normal their day-to-day desires are: they want to go on beer runs and sneak cigarettes and kiss girls. Every time the story turns on a dime like this, I groaned aloud. These kids don't have to be saints just because they're angelic sick kids, the show proudly professes, yet somehow this makes them seem even more saintly and lovable. In trying to undercut my cynicism at every turn by presenting an air of self-awareness, it ended up having the opposite effect.

It's also hard to imagine what this show looks like six episodes down the road. Is Red Band a medical drama dealing with these kids' ongoing health issues? If so, it's hard to imagine it creating a real sense of danger since the ensemble is pretty small, and losing any of the main characters early would be too tough to take. Is it a weird spin on a high school drama? If that's the case, it's going to have trouble stirring up any real conflict, since the pilot pivots on their all-for-one, one-for-all sick-kid unity.

Red Band is narrated by a kid in the ward who's in a coma (he shouts this at the audience early on, as if we should fall out of our seats with shock at the narrative audacity). Explanatory voice-over is a crutch many a pilot episode, good and bad, leans on to lay out information, but Red Band makes the mistake of having Charlie the coma kid explain every character's emotional state on top of their reasons for being in the hospital. I don't even mind the magical realism of having our omniscient narrator be an actual character on the show (who only gets to be on-screen if he visits other characters when they're unconscious), it's just a lazy device to deploy.

Not that the straightforward characterization particularly needs a narrator to lay everything out for us. There's a cheerleader whose mean and bossy exterior obviously covers up a wealth of insecurity, or the rebellious horny teen whose cystic fibrosis diagnosis should probably be checked up on, cause he seems to be able to run around when he wants to. Octavia Spencer is talented enough to hold this nonsense together with even less material than she's given, but it's still a serious waste of her abilities to have her snapping at the kids and then throwing meaningful glances at them later, just in case we didn't realize she has a beating heart behind that tough exterior.

The show's balance of rebel teen drama and outrageous mawkishness might work for some, and I'll admit to always feeling particularly sensitive to shows that deal with such tricky issues—there's almost nothing as upsetting as chronically or terminally ill children, and it's tough not to get affected even when you know you're being manipulated. But Red Band Society is too slick and well-produced for me to forgive its sins. There's some strong talent, and a nice budget, being used on this show, and I can't even argue that there's room for improvement—just a lot of wasted potential.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.